Thursday, March 31, 2005

It's the complexity, stupid!

Happened to catch Lou Dobbs on the CNN evening news recently and one of his featured reports had to do with the issue of the displacement of service and construction workers by illegal immigrant labor. Such a difficult subject here in Richmond since the number of undocumented people is substantial in this community and rising daily.

I was reminded of a day some 3-4 years ago when -- in my role as field representative for a member of the state assembly -- I found myself sitting in a large discussion circle with representatives from various nonprofits and agencies, plus labor union members. It was a racially diverse group and one in which I normally felt in complete accord. The meeting was being held in Richmond's largest Spanish-speaking Catholic church. The pastor, Father Tony, was co-chair of the hosting organization. There was an interpreter present due to the number of Spanish-speakers in the meeting. We were gathered for a seminar on the subject of immigrant labor and the (then) upcoming march to be held in nearby Oakland as an element in the annual Cinco de Mayo parade and day-long celebration. Those taking the lead were members of a social action collaborative to which I was a founding member, plus the AFL-CIO acting on behalf of service workers.

I was increasingly uncomfortable as the morning wore on. I knew that the legislator for whom I worked would be solidly behind this cause and that I was pretty certain that she would expect me to support her views on the matter. In fact it was my obligation to do so. I was feeling more and more resistant as the morning wore on, and had to come up with some way to either give voice to my confusion -- or simply get up and leave. Neither course of action felt right, given my position.

When it became unbearable to continue to sit and stew -- I interrupted the agenda with this:

"I'm so schizophrenic on this matter that I'm feeling like I really need for all of you to help me sort out some of these doubts so that I can do my job. I feel as if I need two chairs to sit on -- one for the professional who is here to represent the state, and another for the Betty who sees the problem very differently from my boss, or, anyone else in this room, apparently." I continued to an uncomfortably hushed group, "I'm far more interested in the problem of displaced service workers than I am in the question of the rights of illegal immigrants!" Then I started to see black folks perk up and heads begin to bob in agreement -- though no one knew where this was going to take us. Not even I had any idea of what disastrous course I was taking, and that silent room suggested that I might be stepping out into the abyss without my bungee cord! I was confident enough of my standing in this group to risk candor. I then told the story of how dismayed I'd been recently to see on screen images of striking janitorial workers in San Francisco, 99% of whom were non-black in an industry that had at one time had been dominated by black folks. Where had they gone?

I told them how puzzled I was a couple of years earlier when my mother was a patient at a nursing home nearby where -- over a period of 3 months, every African American nurse's aide or registered nurse was systematically replaced by women from the Phillipines. Where had they gone?

The following day I drove from my satellite office in Richmond to our district office in Berkeley to catch my boss for some talk about the issue. Ordinarily we were so closely allied politically that there was little need to confer. This was different. I was far from clear on my own feelings about the matter -- couldn't stand to be thought of as either racist or politically incorrect. I felt myself far too sophisticated for such feelings. I was embarrassed. It was necessary to feel backed up by my office. And, in the event that we didn't see eye to eye on a matter as important as this one, then I'd have to make some decisions about whether I could adequately continue to fill this position at all with any sense of integrity. Important stuff.

After some polite listening my boss said the obvious, "...of course I support this action. These poor people have every right to employment. They're doing the work that no one else wants to do, and therefore are contributing positively to the economy."

I wasn't satisfied. My response was: "...I, and my black contemporaries, grew up as the children of service workers for the most part. I was a child and adolescent during the Jim Crow period, and my parents had little opportunity to enter any other job market due to racial practices of the times. Most of today's black leaders in my age group were supported by a generation of folks who were doing those jobs that no one else wanted to do. They were the red caps, the bellhops, the janitors and hotel maids, and the hospital aides and railroad porters, housekeepers and childcare workers, laborers on construction sites, etc. It was by their labor that my generation completed high school and began to enter the universities in significant enough numbers to begin to change the future for black folks everywhere."

She tried to reassure me that African Americans had moved on up since the economy had opened up to us, and that we no longer had to depend upon such low wage employment. This is an assumption that I found hard to justify in light of the desperation and hopelessness that I witnessed day after day in the course of doing the work.

What has happened to those displaced service workers over the past dozen or so years? There was little union organizing around to protect their industry or to organize on their behalf. What with the escalating cutbacks in the welfare system -- and with so many now at the mandatory cutoff after five years of benefits over a lifetime, how are they feeding their kids, or handling healthcare? Now that the service-worker-conveyer-belt-into-the-middleclass has disappeared, how are their children being moved into the mainstream? Or are they? Lots of questions. Had this entire generation of former service workers been abandoned to find their only salvation in an underground economy fueled by drugs?

As I recall, our conversation closed without consensus. I was left with the feeling that -- though I'd presented my case well -- I was not free to work against the official view from our office. The Latino vote had become a powerful factor in electoral politics, and I was fully aware of it. I think that -- as two mutually respectful good friends -- My boss and I without comment agreed to disagree. The words were never voiced -- then or ever, and I was left to ponder endlessly without resolution. I deeply resented the doubts I'd begun to suspect about my own sense of fairness and racial politics. Did I need to take one of those courses on the evils of racial bigotry after all these years? I truly didn't know. Was I, too, guilty of racism without recognizing it in myself?

After tentatively raising my issues at another time in the city's most effective collaborative -- Vision 2000 --, I drew back and held my silence. Though I felt strong support for my questions from other African Americans, few were willing to take a public stand on the matter. The fear of appearing racist was simply too much for us. I spoke about it with an activist African American clergyman whom I deeply respect and was told that "..African Americans are the most forgiving of people...". Didn't know quite how this related to the subject at hand, but it gave me a way to back away and hold my silence despite my strong continuing feelings of resistance while I worked on my forgiveness quotient.

I had a growing feeling that the issue was festering in the black community and that it would explode with anger and resentment at some point if not teased out. We tried to arrange a panel discussion but few participated or even seemed interested. It was not yet time.

The last time I felt strongly about the matter was a day when -- in the same group -- an announcement was made about the Latino Ride for Freedom, a bus trip across country to the nation's capital on behalf of immigrant rights. A page had been taken from our Civil Rights black book of strategies and I felt mildly offended. I couldn't, however, find a way to say anything that wouldn't alienate my Latino friends, so I quietly left the meeting as it neared closure, but again as a very troubled social activist.

Last night Lou Dobbs announced that 41% of displaced workers nationwide had been pushed out of competition for employment in the construction and services industries by illegal immigrant laborers. He added that 40% of black workers had suffered the same fate. There appeared on camera a white construction worker saying that more and more of those in his industry were being undercut for jobs by employers who were benefitting hugely from the low wages that illegals were willing to accept.

At last, the problem is being framed openly and in terms -- not of the victimization of illegal immigrants, nor of the victimization of African American displaced service workers -- but the villain was being called out for what it was; corporate greed. As it is with NAFTA and the exportation of entire industries overseas or below the border, what has happened is that those in the lower and middle classes are seeing the wages depressed by the deliberate actions of employers who benefit hugely by so doing. By bringing down wages in this country -- there will be less need for exportation of entire industries. Those results are a long way off, though, even the small wages for which the illegals will work pales against the miserably low wages in other countries. The race to the bottom will take years, but meanwhile the growing resentments among those displaced will continue to grow and the discontent will feed upon itself -- leaving the true culprits free of either blame or the need to be accountable to a nation under stress.

As always, African Americans were the canaries in the mine. The problem was explained away with the "...they're not taking jobs away from anybody. They're only doing the work that nobody else wants to do." If the Dobbs report has any merit, we may see the greatest push for controlling the borders coming from those same labor unions who ignored the signs until it reached their rank and file.

This will be a growing debate over the next decade. Hope we can uproot the villains and make firm these fragile coalitions between the have-nots. We can ill afford to do otherwise. We need one another in order to survive this time of unprecedented greed and exploitation.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Who's marked for greatness besides Paul Miller?

That's easy, I'm looking at Attorney Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center in San Francisco. His work on the world stage is becoming more and more important. He recently returned from the World Economic Forum at Davos with a strong sense of where we are and where we ought to be in the march toward a better future. His recommendations? "Forget what's happening in Washington, D.C. Let's just go about the business of building that better world here in the Bay Area and then let the rest of the country emulate that." His work on juvenile and criminal justice reforms has made a significant difference in policymaking in this state. His strong support in the battle for a moratorium for the death penalty will surely help to bring about much-needed scrutiny of the issue if not abolition.

United States Senator Barack Obama, of course; someone we're all pinning our hopes on. He impresses me because he is being so very cautious in not moving too fast or taking too many chances before it is appropriate to do so. He's letting us know that he's in it for the long haul and is trying hard to get us to not hamper his efforts by too-heavy expectations. This is a wise and ethical man who is destined to become a world leader in the not too distant future.

Lani Guinnere's short-circuited ascent has slowed her trajectory into national prominence to some degree, but her writings and her incisive powers of analysis continue to bring me from whatever "next room" I happen to be in when I hear that distinctive voice ring out from the radio. I've been known to pull over to the shoulder of the road to listen to her remarks from time to time, and each time come away with usable nuggets of logic and truth. We owe her much. Knowing that she is influencing a new generation of leadership from her university lectern is comforting. One day, though, I'm looking to see her occupying a bench -- maybe on the Supreme Court.

Then there's the rarely-seen Aron McGruder, the political cartoonist who has the same arresting effect on me that Ms. Guinnere does. So much wisdom gained over so few years -- 'tis a wonder. Can't imagine why we don't see more of this wise young man, but I'll keep watching what pieces of his work that I can ferret out and continue to hope for more.

In journalism there's Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor of the Berkeley Daily Planet and an occasional contributor to His insightful pieces are being more and more widely read. Not much that happens in the Bay Area of any import whatever escapes his notice or his pen. He's working on a first novel that shows great promise. His insight into the workings of local governance has caught the attention and concerns of major policymakers and made a difference in outcomes of many a critical civic debate. I'm looking for a Pulitzer with his name on it one day soon.

I also like the work of Deborah Santana. Listening to a radio interview on the occasion of the release of her memoirs reminded me of the kind of spirit and sensitivity of Isabel Allende's writings.

In the arts I like the compositions and performances of Jill Scott and am waiting to hear more from Queen Latifah who has only recently discovered her more serious side and come up with more traditional jazz and R&B themes that are truly exciting. Each time I watch her I see a young Pearl Bailey before me, and wonder if Ms. Latifah sees that in herself? It's clearly an accidental quirk of nature since they're generations apart and there is surely no conscious effort to imitate, but the effortless timing and sheer richness of personality are stunningly similar.

I also have great expectations for the continuing political contributions of Kwami Mfume in his bid to join Obama in the Senate chambers. I've loved him for years and was truly dismayed when he left the Congress to head the NAACP. Have forgiven him, though, and am grateful for the fine work he did in leading that organization out of the shadows of insolvency and back into national prominence.

There are others, I'm sure, in other fields, but I have now to go about the important task of moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer -- then it's off to the dentist to make a payment on my newly re-lined dentures, so that I can claim them as my own again. For one who hated and feared dentists since childhood, I must admit that I was looking forward happily to the day when I could stay home and just send my teeth in a cab! In case you're wondering, that doesn't work too well, either. Wish I could do it all over again ... at least that part of my bodily life... .

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Great show, but almost overwhelming ...

Only realized last night during the show that -- though I own a copy of the old film -- I've never had any inclination to watch it. Was aware that it was blatantly racist and, though considered the epic of its time and heralded the birth of the film industry as a viable art form, the pain of watching it always managed to overwhelm my curiosity. It felt more important to own for its historic value than to experience it. It sits on my bookshelf for someday ... .

Paul "DJSpooky" Miller is without question one of the prophetic voices of the new art world. That is undeniable. His inventiveness in instantaneously choosing those film clips to feed from his elaborate turntable (live!) -- into what is an almost brutally assaultive art piece was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was all done on three huge screens that filled the stage. He "played" it in true DJ fashion -- almost cartoon-like images from the old silent movie in combination with the wild effects of morphing and kaleidoscopic openings and closings and super-imposing of images of brutality super-imposed upon scenes of almost Keystone Kop slapstick-taken-from-reality -- and all beating against your senses with the blaring of a rock music assault by Jimmy Hendrix! The soundtrack was the driving force -- loud, raucus, make-you-want-to-run-away music. Overwhelming is the only word that fits, and even then I wish I had another word to use to describe it all. When looking at that evil innocence (and what a strange coupling of words is that) of the period -- the irony in D.W. Griffith's film when viewed against all that followed in our nation's history is staggering!

Miller's choice of those images that featured not only black actors, but whites-disguised-as-blacks as well (with the tell-tale pink eye-linings). Incongruous! There was the cutting in of images of contemporary dancers played against scenes of cotton fields and galloping menacing Klansmen ... all orchestrated to enhance the ugliness of the period and the human tragedy of runaway racial bigotry.

While caught up in the wildness of what was happening on stage, my own mind was cutting and splicing and filling in with its own kaleidoscopic images of my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, living those years in that little cabin alongside the levee of the Mississippi in St. James Parish, Louisiana. She was widowed and attempting to raise her brood - farming her small plot of land amid the chaos of radical social change. Up popped the image of handsome great Uncle Albert that hangs on the wall of my Richmond apartment along with all the others -- one of her sons who fled in terror to Kansas City -- never to return -- after a fatal confrontation with a Klansman there in Bayou country; a story I've never known in full detail. It was one of the whispered stories -- enshrouded in secrecy and usually only spoken of in creole by grownups. The language (a patois of Cajun French) was gradually adulterated out of existence by English, so we children learned of it from mother and Aunt Vivian in tiny bits as it gradually escaped the bounds of language over many years.

Maybe one of the reasons that I'm able to relate to Miller's presentation is that there is a resemblance in this dynamic flashing sand-blasting imagery and sound that connects with the process through which I'm able to reconstruct my own history. He's providing "triggers" that release meaningful "clips" reclaimed from childhood memories that together created the foundation upon which was formed the woman who eventually emerged. Interesting.

I sense that something terribly important is going on here, and I'm anxious to see and learn more about it. This is the mission of the arts, and Miller is rolling it out to serve a critical need in a time of unprecented social and political re-assessment and moral outrage.

When I see how far-reaching and all-consuming were the misconceptions and mind-numbing racist attitudes that ushered in decades of lynchings and mutilations that were aided and abetted by this film -- I'm appalled. And -- to cruise the internet and view the web sites based upon hate and racial bigotry -- still -- is devastating at worst, and disheartening at best.

Not sure how I feel about it yet, but I did notice how few non-whites were present in last night's audience. The house was almost 100% white. Found myself searching the crowd for other brown/black faces as we were leaving, and coming up empty. Not even sure what that means, except that there appears to be a growing number of members of the mainstream who are more than willing to examine the darker corners of our society if the search is through the arts and not by direct confrontation. Maybe this San Francisco audience was composed of patrons who are fascinated by the avant garde and are also willing to thereby be moved toward reconciliation; significant progress.

But then where were we?

My fear is that many of us are still trapped by the notion that HipHop is no more than highly sexualized young men in baggy clothing and barely-covered sensually gyrating young bronze women. It's viewed as caps worn backwards, do-rags and gold teeth and shoes-untied -- bumping and grinding verbal obscenities and misogyny for profit. It's seen as 6 inch diamond-studded crosses worn over FUBU tee shirts -- and 6 car garages. Not so. Gangsta Rap was no more than one facet of an emerging art form during the 80s and 90s. HipHop culture has continued to evolve and express itself in myriad ways -- for those who didn't forsake the art for celebrity. It bought a lot of gold chains and Hummers and swimming pools and Rollexes (plus some weapons of self-destruction) for lots of youngsters with few other ways to access fame and fortune. Some were bound to get caught up in the deceptively seductive web of the continuum and simply froze there, no question. But the essence of what has since evolved is a bonafide world-shaping genre that has produced some of the most exciting new art forms imaginable, and that has continued to influence world cultures clear across the planet.

Makes one wonder if its black critics (i.e., Dolores Tucker and dear philanthropic Bill Cosby) have remained open to the continuum -- the progression of the HipHop culture's effects upon dance, and poetry, in filmmaking, in the full spectrum of the visual and performing arts the world over? Would have given a my next social security check to have been sitting between these two revered icons last night -- with the chance to de-brief the experience over some chicken wings, spicy Mama-made head cheese and crackers, and a midnight cup of hot spiced cider ... .

Why call it HipHop? Why not? Dada is the silly name of a highly respected genre represented by Arp and his cohorts and suffers none the less for the dubbing.

I came away wanting to know more about the Reconstruction period, those unspeakably brutal years in this nation's history -- years that followed the emancipation of enslaved black Americans and our ascension to seats of power, at least for that brief tumultuous period depicted in the film. I really know very little of that era-- a time that brought about the backlash of the white south and the emergence of the Klan. Learned from Doug that the best thesis is that of Du Bois. Hope his book is still in print... .