The Facing Race Conference


The Applied Research Center (ARC) celebrated its 30th anniversary of, in their words, “fighting for racial justice through media research and action” at its bi-annual Facing Race conference of 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. (ARC is also the publisher of Colorlines.com, a distinguished daily news source on issues of interest to the social justice community). Appropriate to the times we live in, the conference opened with a slide of its relevant twitter tags, which were widely used. It was possible to follow much of the conference via #FacingRace from anywhere in the world if you were part of the Twitterverse—and so many did that it was trending (was most popular) nationally on both Friday and Saturday.

 

Over 1,400 participants—almost 10 percent of them via scholarship or discount—attended 60 workshops and 4 plenaries run by 180 dynamic presenters. Attendance increased by 40 percent from the last conference in 2010, including a half-dozen participants from other countries. Hundreds of front-line progressive organizations were represented, as well as individual educators, activists, artists, writers, and comedians. If you wanted a seat in a workshop, you skipped the break between sessions and arrived very early, otherwise you stood along the walls or sat in the aisles. The plenaries were full as well; the spontaneous discussion-groups at lunch were intense networking opportunities; and the political art exhibit, the bookstores and organizational tables, the free photo booth, and complimentary screenprints by Dignidad Rebelde added to the richness of the environment. Running parallel to the workshops was a conference film festival showcasing important hard-to-see political movies.

 

De-Briefing The Election

 

Since the conference at the Baltimore Hilton ran from November 15-17, it was inevitable that the recent election season would be the backdrop for many of the discussions—from the demographics to the nature of the progressive coalition to the necessity to keep up the pressure on the present Administration. Important ballot referendum victories figured in both the micro and macro analyses. Baltimore and Maryland speakers, for example, were uniformly proud of having passed both the Dream Act and same-sex marriage. California’s three-strike law, which imposes life sentences for minor offenses, was defeated, as were many rape-deniers running for office. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington also did not go unremarked.

 

Many activists were just recovering from the exhaustion of their relentless campaigning, organizing, getting voters registered and to the polls, and stopping voter suppression attempts. Diane Bell-McCoy, of Baltimore’s Associated Black Charities, spoke for many when she said in her welcome, “This is a time for me to refresh myself so not every other word out of my mouth is ‘This is just too hard’.” While they felt proud of their victories, not one speaker was an apologist for Obama. Many were gratified and even somewhat proud of having a person of color in the Oval Office, but no group felt that their needs had been met during Obama’s first term or were confident that Obama was a reliable ally.

 

It was good to have eliminated the unthinkable Republican alternative, but it was time to get back to the work of pressuring the Administration to move things forward. There were no delusions that we could sit back and rest. For example, the Latino community voted for Obama massively, even though he deported more people than any other president ever. But his last-minute granting of a slice of the DREAM Act was welcomed as a first step.

 

The NAACP’s CEO Ben Jealous talked with passion and personal openness about the new majority, about the activism against racial injustice by his white father, and about ARC’s achievements over 30 years of fighting structural and institutional racism. He pointed to the evolving coalitions that were going to change both popular and electoral politics.

 

ARC’s President Rinku Sen is well-known for her expansion of ARC, for her leadership in the racial justice community, and for her work around immigrant rights (including her two books: The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization and Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy). She was a visible, articulate presence throughout the conference, setting the tone with her address “We are the Majority and we Demand Justice.”

 

Sen launched the conference-long examination of the role of people of color in defeating the Republicans, saying, “They can’t call us minorities, not just because it is offensive, but because it is inaccurate.” But demographics are not the single defining characteristic of the movement. More important is the ideology underpinning it. There was wide agreement that the goal is not to reverse the hierarchy of privilege, but rather to dismantle it.

 

Judith Browne Dianis, a civil rights litigator from The Advancement Project, was at the heart of the heroic interruption of the well-funded, long-running voter suppression efforts, a crucial element of the Republican campaign strategy. She told us that 34 states tried to pass voter fraud laws (“In Texas, it was emergency legislation”) and 9 succeeded, most of which Dianis and her allies stopped. In court, Dianis testified, “I’ve got more evidence of Santa Claus than you have of voter fraud.” She explained the Republican fraud mythology: “This changing demographic thing that we love is driving them insane. Insanity leads to invention.” Many experts pointed out that while this time most of these initiatives were held back, that particular war is far from over.

 

The zeal for voting among people of color overcame such obstacles as lines that were eight hours long causing some to lose a full day of work—what one speaker called “a poll tax.” All the millions spent on intimidating people of color into staying away from the polls seemed to have been a bust.

 

Changing The Conversation On Race

 

A number of workshops grappled with how to talk about racism, now that it is being dismissed. The bogus idea of being “color blind” is an attempt to pretend that racism has been eradicated and that those who would challenge bias are themselves racist for bringing it up. ARC President Rinku Sen recalled the “post-racial” attitude of an interviewer at Fox who asked her, “You’ve got Obama. You’ve got Oprah. What more do you want?” Replied Sen, “I will settle for a great public education for every kid, living wages, the right to vote, justice, love, and freedom….”

 

Sen raised a distinction that would become a theme throughout the conference: “There’s a difference between diversity and equity. Diversity is about getting bodies into the room: equity is about what you can do in the room.” Or, as Kai Wright, editorial director of Colorlines.com, added later, “Diversity is necessary but insufficient. Equity is about outcomes. It is not about intent, but about what actually happens.” Whether or not the racism is deliberate, he continued, “as long as 25 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, there isn’t equity.”

 

Others distinguished between diversity and equity in this way. Diversity is including previously excluded people at the table. But then the question is what happens at that table. Equity is when they are not just present but influential, when their opinions are equally valued, and when they are able to impact the culture of that table.

 

Milly Hawk Daniel, from PolicyLink, asked, “How do we get what we want if we don’t say what we mean?” She told the story of a local group of parents asking that an official role be filled by a person of color. When a Latino was appointed, the African-Americans were disappointed. They had not said what they really wanted. This happened in California as well where the Affirmative Action campaigners took a strategic decision to talk only of white women and their opportunities and not to talk about Black people or use images of people of color. Everyone knew the sub-text anyway, but it remained implicit. Their strategy failed.

 

The white anti-racist writer Tim Wise pointed out that, “Eighty years ago hobos were heroes and Dickens’s Scrooge was an asshole. Big government was taken for granted, when it was working for white people.” In fact, federal services only became demonized as poverty was imbued with coded references to race and gender—welfare scroungers and single mothers, i.e., “the takers.”

 

Wise also spoke about “the proper role of a white ally” in the struggle for racial justice. In light of the exaggerated weight and impact of the voice of white men, he says “members of a dominant group” need to be very aware of when they are using their voice in support of the movement or when they are drowning out other voices. Like so many of the speakers, Wise insisted that the most powerful political tool is the personal story. “Tell your own stories,” he said. “I don’t tell Henry Louis Gates’ story [of being arrested at his own home], but of how many times I’ve had dealings with the cops without having any trouble.”

 

In fact, story-telling as an organizing tactic was a prominent theme at Facing Race, with a range of workshops sporting “story” in the title and a plethora of speakers who used this tool. Reporting for Z Magazine, I asked Kai Wright why. He responded “We believe strongly that you have to show rather than tell, especially around difficult issues. Race is a topic many people do not want to address. If you cite a lot of facts or even the most searing analysis, it’s hard for it to be real to people.” Instead, many doing anti-racism work believe you need to give folks personal stories that they can relate to.

 

This was echoed by the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out on TV as a gay undocumented immigrant and landed on the cover of Time Magazine. “At the heart of culture is story-telling.” When they do get access to mainstream media, it’s essential that people of color tell their stories, he added, and “play offense.”

 

The Iranian Muslim comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad threw down the best line of the weekend in support of cultural work: “I don’t care about the political outcome of my work. I care about the cultural outcome. Instead of people thinking Muslims are terrorists, I want them to think Muslims are hilarious.” She believes that if you “communicate in the language of garbage”—the language of reality shows and Fox News—more people can hear you.

 

Immigration

 

Immigration issues were at the heart of Facing Race as many of the activists are working around immigration, not the least ARC. Their “Drop The I-Word” campaign has changed language and attitudes. After all, people are not “illegal,” whether or not they have documents.

 

Gary Delgado, the founder of ARC and one of the original organizers in ACORN, talked about some of the ways in which local solutions are being found for problems created by the lack of an effective national immigration policy. He pointed to progressive municipalities that are producing their own ID for undocumented residents, one that is accepted by such crucial local institutions as banks and the police. Such a document can produce “collateral” progress: in San Francisco, for example, the municipal ID does not include a gender category, eliminating a number of obstacles for transgender people.

 

What academics call “intersectionality—inter-connectedness—was consistently part of the complex approach most speakers were taking to their subjects. There were no easy solutions, no over-simplicity, and certainly no ignorance of history. For example, one workshop made a concrete connection between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the work of young immigrant activists today. Entitled “DREAMers and Freedom Riders: Racial Justice Across Generations,” it included two former Freedom Riders, Lenora Tait-Magubane and Moses Newson, together with Selene Medina (18 years old) from the Latin American Coalition’s youth group and Ireri Unzueta Carrasco (25 years old) from the Immigrant Youth Justice League.

 

To the backdrop of sobering clips from the documentary Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson, the two Riders told their stories of persistence in the face of violence. Lenora Tait-Magubane was a student in Atlanta who joined the first ride on May 4, 1961—from Washington DC to New Orleans. “All of us were college students and many of us were first generation college students, fulfilling our parents’ dreams.” To drop out of college in order to organize was a sacrifice. She received her training in non-violence from Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

 

Their movement recognized that laws were not enough in the face of local intransigence. Tait-Magubane recalled, “Schools were [legally] integrated in New Orleans, but the teachers refused to comply. One teacher said, ‘I will not teach this child.’ You have to fight for your freedom—no one will give it to you.”

 

Tait-Magubane added a piece of advice to activists: “Be one step ahead.” Smiling, she explained what happened to her one time when she wasn’t. She was regularly going to a food counter to order a hamburger, knowing they would never serve her. Finally, someone unexpectedly asked her, “May I serve you?” Oops. She couldn’t order as she had no money in her pocket.

 

Moses Newson was a journalist and photographer who had just finished covering the Emmett Till case when he was assigned to the Freedom Rides. He saw that, “The police sided with those who were trying to hold back the clock…. It was the most integrated thing I had ever been on. We started with 13 folks—7 blacks and 6 whites.” Even when the group of Riders grew to several hundred, he said, the proportions stayed just about the same.

 

He told harrowing stories of police standing by while the KKK and others beat those trying to integrate the transportation system. His fellow riders included John Lewis and James Farmer. “No Freedom Rider will get out of Alabama alive,” they were told. Newson was on a bus outside Anniston, Alabama where they were beaten and the tires were punctured before fire bombs were tossed inside and the bus filled with smoke and fire. “That wasn’t the time to get off the bus with a camera around your neck,” he said, describing how he hid it under his seat in the burning bus. That camera is now displayed in the DC museum of news, Newseum.

 

Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, now 25 years old, has been in the States since she was 7. She takes risks as an undocumented activist because she knows that one way or another, “Being deported can happen at any time.” Like so many others, she pointed to President Obama’s record of massive deportation and of putting into place “destructive programs” that distinguish between “good immigrants and bad immigrants.” Carrasco feels more comfortable identifying as undocumented than as a DREAMer, a concept which she says “polarizes the community…. What,” she asks, “does it mean to be a family?” As a queer, she regrets that most immigrant groups “think only of hetero-normative families when they fight for family unity.”

 

Like other immigration activists, Carrasco called for keeping up the pressure. “We cannot rely on politicians or laws to fix what is broken in our community.” Selene Medina agreed, remembering that after the 2008 election of Obama, “There was a lot of anger when nothing was happening. Why did we do all this organizing for someone who was not helping…. We saw it was us who would have to push [Obama] again.” Her priorities include obtaining in-state college tuition for immigrants.

 

Immigration is not, of course, only a Latino issue. People from around the world are dealing with issues of U.S. documentation—from the Irish to the east Europeans to people from all parts of Asia. Even the Republicans seemed to conclude from the election results that they need to change directions—one of the first things they called for was a comprehensive immigration bill. They seem to feel the demographic reality breathing down their necks. Non-white babies are already the majority of newborns, and white people are likely to be less than half the population by 2024.

 

Race And Gender In The 21st Century

 

Maya Wiley, of the Center for Social Inclusion, sketched out the mix of her family in a way that reflects so many American households. She is black, her mother is white, her husband is Jewish, and of her two children, one appears to be black and one appears to be white. Filling out their census forms is a riot of response. Michael Omi of the University of California pointed out the conflict between the state-based categories and how people self-define. “The second most popular ‘other’ race write-in,” he told us, “is Jedi.”
 

The concept of whiteness is being increasingly explored and it was an element in many Facing Race discussions. Not only are white people encouraged to acknowledge whiteness, they need to understand how its privilege plays out in their lives. Further, the notion of whiteness is morphing and, like the “new majority,” this will have an impact on the country’s make-up. For example, an increased number of Puerto Ricans identified as white in the last census and many Latinos claimed both a Latin nationality and a racially white identity.

 

Ominously, Omi talked about the re-biologicalization of race. He was supported by Christian Sundquist of Albany Law School who said this change is underpinned by the Genome Project and fueled by a pharmaceutical industry that is rebranding lucrative medicines—whose patents have expired—for a new use as race-based prescriptions. This troubling trend is not new. According to Sundquist, “Racial inequalities were, back in the day, considered the natural result of biological differences.” By branding a difference “genetic,” one eliminates society’s responsibility for inequalities. For example, medicine is pointing towards hypertension as a black disease when, in fact, it is likely to be a response to racism.

 

Moreover, there is a new tyranny of DNA collection, in some instances from people who have been stopped by the police, but not charged. Not only does this build up a massive DNA database, but it turns out that DNA evidence, although used heavily against men of color, is not always reliable. Sundquist reminded the audience that not only is “race a social construction, but science is also.” Omi added a point that came up many times in the conference: “Race is gendered and gender is raced.”

 

Women have long resisted the idea that “biology is destiny,” not the least during this recent election season in which, said Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas from the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, “We saw misogyny and racism on steroids.” And the response was very strong—at least from women of color. In fact, these statistics are particularly interesting. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, the perplexing numbers show that while 96 percent of African American women and 76 percent of Latinas voted for Obama, only 56 percent of white women voted for Romney. Considering the barrage of woman-hating that came from his Republican Party brothers, it is hard to explain this apparent vote against their own interests, although Christian identity, class privilege, and racism may all be factors.

 

Humor, Culture, Politics

 

Humor played a big role throughout Facing Race. The two emcees were emblematic of the valued place wit held in this gathering. Deanna Zandt played havoc with gender-style in her skin-tight silver pants and heels, topped by a tie and sculpted brassy blond Elvis hair-do. Zandt is a speaker, consultant, and author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, as well as a board member of ARC. Her partner onstage was W. Kamau Bell, a West Coast stand-up comedian whose main nod to fashion was the pick in his Afro. (Chris Rock saw Bell’s stand-up and helped him develop a show for Fox Called “Totally Biased” which has been changing the face of TV, literally, for several months. Chris Rock told him, “If I’m not going to help an intelligent black guy, who’s going to help an intelligent black guy?”) The duo was perfect for this conference.

 

In a panel discussion devoted to social change through Internet jokes called “Like Racism, Only Funnier,” Bell was joined by the video blogger and hip-hop deejay Jay Smooth, as well as Iranian Muslim filmmaker and comic Negin Farsad. Her film The Muslims Are Coming follows a varied group of Muslim comics as they tour Middle America debunking Islamophobia by setting up booths in small towns with signs like “Hug a Muslim.”

 

The panelists grappled with the idea of “funny.” When an audience hates a painting, it remains a painting. But if no one laughs at a joke, is it still a joke? The comic has a more active relationship to the audience than other artists: audiences change the act. Bell told of how a lesbian fan taught him that, “If I’m going to talk about anti-racism, I also have to talk about anti-sexism.” In other words, one can’t fight racism by promoting sexism. Progressive comics believe that if you can get someone to laugh with you, you’ve established common ground.

 

And what is in and out of bounds? Can race be funny? Can rape be funny? There is no area of life comics can’t touch, but as Samhita Mukhopadhyah of Feministing.com said during a discussion of the white, male Comedy Central comic Tosh’s foul pro-rape jokes earlier this year, “It’s not that feminists don’t have a sense of humor. We just have high standards. We want smart jokes.” Molly Ivins, the late satirist, was quoted in this discussion: “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel, it’s vulgar.”

 

And what about the relationship between culture and politics: does one trump the other? In fact, it is often impossible to distinguish one from the other. When interviewed, Jay Smooth noted how the movement impacts his work and vice versa and told me that he was pleased to interact at Facing Race with folks he has only known online. “It’s good,” he said, “to see that there are so many of us and to be able to build together, as you can only do in person.”

 

Perhaps the cultural highlight of the conference was the keynote speech from Junot Diaz, the Dominican-American writer who has won every literary honor from the Pulitzer Prize to the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. Half his presentation was ad libbed, full of street language, rebellious statements, and droll observations that had people falling off their seats in laughter. In the other half, he read a prepared speech that he had found “excruciating” to write. Diaz opened with a description of “how nakedly privilege gets distributed in my family. My family was a fuckin’ experiment in pigmentation.” For being among the lighter siblings, he got more admiration and less punishment. “Same thing around gender. I noticed how greedily I tried to profit from that.” Discussion of those privileges can be manipulative. “We’ll throw down something as if it is an ace when we know that motherfucker is a three.” But if we are to change the world’s injustice, we need to root it out of ourselves. “You are fundamentally comprised of the oppressions you resist,” he told the crowd, and “The muscles of resistance need to be exercised.”

 

His run-down on the impact of racism on human life was a brilliant riff. Equally as powerful was his willingness to look deeply into the concept of privilege and the ways in which he has personally had to change his own behavior in light of his growing consciousness. It was an exercise in stark honesty. His startling conclusion: “We need to focus on the queer poor women of color and the strategies they developed.” Among others, he mentioned Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Love is what it is about, he said. “These women of color—queer and poor—they were trying to love women in a world that told them that women were not worthy of love…. What could be more important,” he concluded, “than being part of the greatest challenge in the world: the rehumanization of women.” Throughout the room, people’s faces were wet with tears.

 

Finally, allow me one personal anecdote that, for this writer, seems symbolic of the event’s environment of dialectical collaboration. On my first visit to the toilets closest to the plenary, I joined a long line of women waiting outside the women’s room, while only the random guy went into the men’s room directly opposite. The second time I went, both bathrooms were marked with a printed sign “Gender Free”—and there were no lines. The third time, there was an additional sign: “If you prefer a women’s or men’s room, they are down the hall to the right.”

 

This is how the whole Facing Race conference worked. Something traditional and unequal was replaced with something more practical and equitable, only to be further improved on, due no doubt to suggestions from the participants, all served up with good will, wit, and a commitment to communicate.

Z


Sue Katz is an author, journalist, blogger and rebel. She used to be most proud of her martial arts career and world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult (www.suekatz. typepad.com). Friend her at facebook.com/sue.katz.