Permanence of Racism and the Hope of Resistance

There are no more patriotic people in America today than black, brown and Muslim people. Period.

Over this past week, many immigrants, most undocumented, are taking part in the #daywithoutimmigrant strikes. Last month, Yemoni bodega owners in New York City conducted a strike by closing their stores, which are normally open 24 hours/7 days a week (if you want to hear more about my thoughts on the bodega strike, watch this video). In my last post, I wrote about the importance of elevating voices of color as this administration’s onslaught against them intensifies. And ordinary people of color are raising their voice, telling their stories, and demanding the justice they deserve. To do all this in face of such hostility is the mark of true patriotism.

Let’s be honest, to be a person of color in the United States right now is to be continually disappointed, frustrated, hopeless and even scared. This is not to say that some minority communities weren’t already feeling this way before the rise of Trump. However, now we all feel it and feel it intensely. The Trump administration has made it a cornerstone to dehumanize people of color by painting with broad strokes very dark views of all of us who do not fit their narrow definition of American – white, heterosexual, and Christian. We know that they are attempting to codify hatred into laws and aspire to erase social progress made within the last 50 and even 150 years (if you want to learn more about this threat, Jamelle Bouie’s recent article on government by white nationalism is an excellent start).

As the Trump drumbeat goes on and we read about inhumane treatment by people with power whether it’s a five year old being handcuffed by Customs and Border Patrol agents or ICE agents conducting horrific raids in immigrant communities, how do we continue to feel empowered and raise our collective voice?

In an effort not to feel paralyzed by the hopelessness and fear that I’m feeling, I recently dusted off one of my favorite college textbooks, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” Through a series of short stories, Derrick Bell, a long-time civil rights lawyer and the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, argues racism is a not a passing phase but an “integral, permanent, and indestructible component of [American] society.” He further argues that any judicial and legislative victories that moves us closer to social progress and a more equal society is a necessary mirage that helps maintain the racial hierarchy. While this might sound utterly despairing, I’d argue it’s a blueprint for understanding and ultimately surviving Trump’s America.

When you look through Bell’s prism, the arcs of America’s history fits into the pattern he describes. The end of slavery made way to nearly a century of brutal Jim Crow laws. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement ushered in the Raegan movement, which was white folks lashing back with anger. So it’s fitting the racist undercurrent that is ever present in American society would produce a virulent nationalism that narrowly defines who is an American after eight years of social progress by the very presence of a remarkable first Black President (who we are not likely to again see the likes of in our lifetime). And of course the man that would replace him would be a blatantly racist and ignorant man with a small ego that validates the superiority of whiteness. It’s also not surprising then that thirty years after being rejected for federal judgeship, Jeff Sessions would not just be confirmed as Attorney General but be portrayed as a civil rights proponent. It should shock no one that this cabal of white nationalists are redefining not just the power of the executive branch but who deserves the protections guaranteed in the Constitution.

Bell also argues that judicial and legislative progress can and must occur because a system of racial hierarchy can only survive if there is a mirage of equality as evidenced by small victories. We saw that with the Muslim Ban, a discriminatory executive order that barred entry into the country citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order was wide-reaching applying not just to refugees and valid visa holders but permanent residents and dual citizens as well. As if on cue to perpetuate a mirage, the courts delivered a temporary victory with a stay of the ban. However, legal scholars have pointed out the shaky legal ground of these decisions (if you want to read more on this, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s breakdown of the legal arguments). Judicial intervention in the Muslim Ban demonstrates that the law can expand ever so slightly for justice to prevail occasionally. However, the entire episode of the ban also demonstrates that social progress just as slowly as it expands, it can also constrict quickly and without warning.

“Our story is less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up.” – Derrick Bell

You’re probably asking, if this is a natural progression what is the point of resisting? Why should communities of color put themselves at risk to make their voices heard?

Bell, without hesitation, would argue we keep fighting, just as he always chose to fight. He argues that simply acknowledging the permanence of racism itself is liberating. So, it’s comforting to me to know that Trump’s America is not just a phenomenon that began with him or will end with his short- or long-lived presidency. The ugly racism was always fermenting, so this acknowledgement can become the driving force to push against the boundaries of racism that lead to meaningful social change.

I also take inspiration from Derrick Bell’s life which was a permanent struggle against racist structures at enormous personal cost. Early in his career, before the civil rights movement was a movement, he resigned his job at the Department of Justice rather than renounce his NAACP membership. He gave up his deanship at the University of Oregon Law School because the school did not make a commitment to hiring more Asian professors. Similarly, he lost his tenured job at Harvard Law School because he took a stand against Harvard Law School’s abysmal record of hiring women of color.

I also take inspiration from the actions of vulnerable communities that are fighting back against this administration. Some are big with a lot of attention but others are small acts of resistance that take place every single day and are equally important.

The hope and survival guide I find in Bell’s work is the importance of “survival through unremitting struggle.”

I’m Ranting Again…

As many of you were, I was heartbroken on election night. There were many reasons I was sad but I was saddest that I allowed myself to be hopeful – that we as a country would get it right. That sadness eventually turned to anger. How could we, as a country, get it so wrong? So I wrote a bunch of angry rants on what I thought led us to this place as a way to channel my anger into something constructive.

Since then, so much has happened – intelligence community confirming Russia helped Trump get elected, the nominations of seriously unqualified candidates to cabinet positions, a Muslim ban that stranded refugees, permanent residents and dual citizens at airports, and the list goes on. How is it possible not to be in a constant state of anger during this onslaught? I’ve come to embrace my anger because anger can be useful because it can help us find clarity, and push us to have conversations that we are afraid to have. Instead of hiding from this anger, I’m going to use this space to channel it into something constructive that will hopefully help us have productive conversations.

I am an immigrant, woman of color and the daughter of working-class parents. I was raised by a badass feminist mother who to this day doesn’t know what the word means or even cares and a father, despite his upbringing and the worldview taught to him, had the same expectations of me as he would have had for a son. I stumbled my way into feminism and social justice through the invaluable mentorship of some amazing black women professors in college. The words of black women writers like bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde shaped my worldview. All of these things helped me develop a unique perspective on politics. And this perspective will make some of you uncomfortable and may even make you angry in return. But I also think the anger is an opportunity for us to finally have some difficult and angry conversations. If you want to read more about anger as a tool for empowerment, I’d recommend Kirsten West Savall’s recent article.

We know from words and deeds to date that this new administration will mercilessly target certain communities of color. And for some it will be literally a fight of life or death. If the current nominee, Jeff Sessions, were to become the Attorney General, he will further perpetuate and protect the racism that will surely cause many more black deaths by the police. This weekend, we saw the cruelty that the administration can unleash on Muslim communities and upend the lives of people who dare worship differently. We can be certain families will be torn apart when this administration implements a mass deportation plan. Given the stakes, we need as many people to be angry at what is happening and take action but that also requires that people, ahem white friends, come to this with a certain level of awareness.

For example, I’m not moved by your story that the Women’s March was your first protest. Ummm… really? All that tells me is that you’ve lived a life of privilege and you’ve turned a blind eye to all the ways that people are suffering. I knew that I would participate the moment it was announced. I had a pleasant enough experience but it was also disheartening that white women could be mobilized in such large numbers only if their interests were threatened. If you want to learn more about why many women of color chose not to participate, there are plenty of articles but I’d recommend the piece by Jamilah Lemieux.

“I’m really tired of Black and Brown women routinely being tasked with fixing White folks’ messes. I’m tired of being the moral compass of the United States. Many of the White women who will attend the march are committed activists, sure. But for those new-to-it White women who just decided that they care about social issues? I’m not invested in sharing space with them at this point in history.”

Women accomplished something amazing and powerful on January 21. I was moved by it. Women, including prominent women of color, led this phenomenon that involved people from all seven continents, including Antarctica! After an election that was a slap in the face to every smart and hard-working woman around the world, it was gratifying. But white women, did you need to act so white after the march? Did you really need to share smug self-congratulation, absent of social context and privilege, that the march had no arrests? Did you think for a minute the police wasn’t out in full riot gear because they didn’t feel threatened by a bunch of white women?

Let’s be honest… the rise of Trump is not just a win for racism but also the failure of white feminism – movement that centered whiteness. (If you want to know what that means, I’d recommend this article by Jenee Desmond-Harris.) White women voted for Trump by a margin of 53 percent, while black women voted for Hillary by a margin of 94 percent. To me that is a significant betrayal. In the end, white women chose the promise the privileges of whiteness over an allegiance to sisterhood. Katie McDonough’s article does a good job of breaking this down. All the explanations in the world won’t matter, if you cannot hear that white women voted for Trump without saying “but I’m not…” or becoming defensive. And if you do that, you are part of the problem and falling into the same trap as your white feminist foremothers. If you are angry reading this paragraph, I’d say sit with that anger and figure out why it’s making you angry.

This is not to say that there aren’t constructive mobilization efforts underway or that I’m not thankful for everyone who is engaged now. Over the weekend, my anger turned to hope again that we can work across racial lines to resist the worst of what this administration will unleash. But we must acknowledge that is only a strategy for survival. What happens after that? Will this resistance movement continue with strength and mass beyond this administration to truly dismantle the ideology of white supremacy? We need to understand solidarity built on the centering of whiteness (and muting the anger and pain of women of color) will not last. If we are going to create an enduring and strong resistance movement, the ownership shifts to white allies to become more educated (and not put the responsibility of educating on women of color), hear the criticism from marginalized women who have been leading resistance movements for a long time, and continue to stay engaged and take action over the long haul.

“I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts … my anger is no excuse for not dealing with your blindness, no reason to withdraw from the results of your own actions.”

– Audre Lorde

A little background

I am an immigrant, woman of color and the daughter of working-class parents. I was raised by a badass feminist mother who to this day doesn’t know what the word means or even cares and a father, despite his upbringing and the worldview taught to him, had the same expectations of me as he would have had for a son. So, my existence alone is political. I stumbled my way into feminism and social justice through the invaluable mentorship of some amazing black women professors in college. The words of black women writers like bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde shaped my worldview. All of these things helped me develop a unique perspective on politics. And this perspective will make some of you uncomfortable and may even make you angry in return.

“It’s not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusal to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn with it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.” – Audre Lorde

I hope we can use the anger and discomfort we are feeling to make this a community to have the difficult conversations we’ve all been avoiding.