Death Rattle? Naw, Just Clearing Its Throat

This post begins on last Tuesday night, about 11:12pm EST, when MSNBC called Ohio for Obama putting him over the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the election. It begins when four states broke the 32 straight losses handed to marriage equality proponents. Throughout the course of the night Maryland, Maine, Washington, and Minnesota added to the number of states where any two consenting, unrelated adults can get married, regardless of their sex or gender. This post begins when on that same night 19 women were elected or re-elected to the Senate, the largest number in history. This post begins when a record number of Asian Americans, queer people, and people with disabilities were elected to legislative office on the national and state level. This post begins on that night when people who straddle the intersections of multiple oppressed identities, like Tammy Duckworth (woman, double-amputee, and Asian American) and Mary Gonzalez (woman, pansexual, and Latina) were elected to represent districts on both the national (Duckworth) and state (Gonzalez) levels that were supposed to reject them and their complicated multiplicity, but didn’t. This post begins when Florida was finally called for Obama, bringing the final Electoral College tally to 332-206 and Obama winning 50.6% of the popular vote, while Romney carried a karmic 47.8%.

This post begins with a dance party, ushered in by none other than DJ Kool’s iconic song surely “to get the people going” (nod to JayZ and Kanye), “Let Me Clear My Throat”:

If you’re like me, you couldn’t help but dance in your chair a little, just now. Indeed, over the past week, the victory of the marginalized has been heralded and people have been literally dancing in the streets, in their chairs, and anywhere else. Obama’s Democratic Party has been cited for its ability to build a diverse coalition of voices who recognized that we really were all in this together. Meanwhile, the GOP has been mocked, hammered, and castigated for allowing itself to become the handmaiden of (religious) extremists, out of touch with the modern world – “a ‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ world,” as Maureen Dowd quotes some Republicans admitting. Liberal commentators are announcing the “death throes” of the GOP, and of white, male (read, Republican) privilege to boot.

That’s an appealing narrative, heady and very seductive, and completely delusional. I refer back to DJ Kool and assert that White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, economically-secure privilege has merely taken a moment to “clear its throat.” Let me explain by means of an historical analogy.

Fifty-six years ago, on this day in 1956, the Supreme Court struck down segregation on public buses. Mostly affecting the South, no longer would White people be able to unseat a Black passenger. Black people could ride anywhere on the bus they wanted, front, back, didn’t matter. Folks celebrated and although there was no DJ Kool yet, I would imagine that the sonorous tones of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” stridently proclaimed victory in church basements and house parties. Wait, that song hadn’t come out yet either, so maybe it was a really bumping rendition of “We Shall Overcome” instead.

It was not just a matter of racial animus that made the idea of Whites riding the bus with Blacks side-by-side repugnant. Social class was also at work, most of the Black riders were domestics, cooks, day laborers – men and women who shared a social class status that put them beneath Whites whose own blue collar jobs afforded them the protection of unions, higher pay, and the illusion of class mobility into the upper income strata during an era where cars were still a luxury purchase.

The creation of the suburbs, which led to urban decline, the disappearance of walk-able neighborhoods in the inner-cities, and the exodus of property tax dollars from the city-center to the suburbs, allowed the racism and classism that birthed segregation on public buses to turn its death rattle into a throat-clearing reinvention of itself.

I couldn’t see how this operated until I left my small hometown of New York City for the Midwest,  ostensibly just for college. When I was growing up, it seemed like everybody rode the public transit system. From people who worked on Wall Street to people who worked Wall Street, social class did not appear to distinguish who rode the buses and subways and who didn’t.

But when I went away to college in Michigan and have since continued to live in Ohio, I noticed a very different dynamic. When I first moved to Columbus in 1996 to begin grad school, for example, I found an apartment on a main bus line, excited that I could leave my car at home and take the bus to campus, probably about a 40 minute ride on two different buses. When I shared that plan with others, people looked at me like I had ten heads and was dumber than a rock. Why would you ride the bus when you have a car? People explained that the buses were “dangerous,” “dirty,” and that they really were the enclave of the unhoused and the mentally unstable, as much as those who were simply poor. I rode the bus a couple of times anyway, just to see for myself, and what I noticed more than the filthiness and the unreliability of the service schedules was how few middle-class, White people I ever saw on the bus, especially beyond the downtown limits. I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in other cities in Michigan and Ohio and have heard the same bus narrative retold in other places around the country. The racial and class privilege that birthed segregation just found a new way to assert itself, cloaked in a narrative of convenience and independence.

So even as residents across more than 30 states file secession petitions and D. L. Hughley insightfully comments on the cognitive disconnect produced by the phrase “we, the people” for some U.S. citizens, what we are witnessing is hardly the death of anything. Privilege is just pausing to clear its throat.

An election victory, or even several in one night, is not enough to dethrone the notion that certain people want Bill O’Reilly’s “stuff” and “things” (i.e., the benefits of privilege), as they join O’Reilly in bemoaning the new minority called the White establishment (by the way, Bill, white men still control most of the seats in Congress). As Jesse Hagopian argues, and I agree with him, the current budget negotiations do absolutely nothing to reverse the flow of wealth from those who already have it to those who don’t have enough. Compromise inevitably preserves the status quo. As Frederick Douglass said over a century ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Compromise is not a demand.

November 6, 2012 will go down in history for many reasons, but it was hardly the demand strong enough, loud enough, persistent enough to force the hand of power. Not unless it’s followed by continued momentum. As President Obama said himself in the wee hours of November 7th, our work was not completed at the polls on November 6 and it can’t wait until November 2014, either.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” So, what are we, those who want to sound the death knell of privilege, demanding? Are we really satisfied with women occupying 19% of the Senate when we are 55% of the population? Are we really placated merely by electoral victories? Political parties don’t reallocate power and privilege. Such reallocation requires the dismantling and rebuilding of the structural systems that award privilege. Tweaks and compromises won’t get us there.

 

Note: This post was originally going to be about the Republican Party and where it needs to go from here, but the anniversary of the end of public bus segregation took me on a whole different path.

 

Hope for the Future

This is a political post. But it’s not about either of the candidates or their respective parties. It’s about the next generation of voters and how hopeful I am that they will be anything but apathetic.

Yesterday, I volunteered with the group Organizing for America to get out the vote (GOTV) in the town in which I live. I’m not new to this kind of community organizing effort. In 2008, I canvassed on a couple of evenings, in mostly Republican neighborhoods, trying to convince people to vote for Obama. Then in 2010, my town had to decide on whether protection from discrimination in housing, employment, public education, and public accommodations should be extended to more people, including the LGBT community. To get those ordinances passed, I became what was known at the time as a “super volunteer,” devoting dozens of hours on the phone and on the street, but mostly on the streets canvassing voters and training other volunteers. But for this election, I had been mostly absent. My research travels kept me gone for most of August and September. I kept putting off the patient but persistent volunteer who kept calling me. I told him I would help in October. When he called back and I answered the phone, it was the last week of the month and there were 10 days before the election. I finally got on board. So, yesterday was my first canvass for this election cycle.

When I arrived, the place was all abuzz with volunteers. The folks coming to walk the streets, clipboards and literature in hand, were a cross-section of our local community. Young people, middle-aged folks, senior citizens, men and women, racial diversity, you name it, it was out (believe it or not for my small town). The staff organizers were mostly young people, traditional college age and maybe a bit older. Young adults are still heavily involved in this election, don’t let anyone fool you.

But the person who most impressed me was my canvassing partner for the afternoon. There were an odd number of volunteers who showed up for this particular shift and I was the odd one out. One of the volunteers called over her son to partner up with me. I was surprised to see that the person who came forward was a young boy, 12 years old, just a year younger than my daughter. I’ll call him “T.” T is in the seventh grade, plays soccer, and has older brothers. This is an activist family, from mom on down to her sons. T had been volunteering after school and giving up his weekends since soccer season ended doing everything from phone banking to door-to-door neighborhood canvassing.

Let me repeat myself: T is 12 years old.

We got our materials together, grabbed a couple hand warmers and a bottle of water, and headed out. I had to chuckle to myself when he asked if I had a car – clearly he wasn’t able to. And then I was just very impressed that a young person who couldn’t even vote, let alone drive, was volunteering so much of his time to this election.

As we walked together, knocking on doors, talking to a person here and there about the importance of their vote (and yes, encouraging their support of President Obama), T and I also talked. We criticized whoever “cut” our walk route, how much we both hated having to go into apartments, and how cold we were. We went together into hideaway apartment buildings downtown that he termed as “scary” and I agreed with him. We talked about strategy for talking to undecided voters.

As we returned to the staging office, he told me he was going to call one of his friends to see if he would come out for the next canvassing shift. He had been there all day and was ready to go out again for another 3 hours of walking, knocking, and talking. In this whole campaign cycle, I’ve given a total of 4.5 hours (1.5 hours last Tuesday calling folks and the 3 hours yesterday). I looked at T and immediately felt incriminated.

I signed up for a shift on Election Day because I wanted to follow T’s good example. And here I thought I was supposed to be the role model. I am reminded of Sweet Honey ‘n the Rock’s song, “Ella’s Song.” They sing about freedom and not resting until it comes, but they also remind us that it’s the youth that will lead the way and whose strength and energy will help us to keep going.

With young people like T on board, I feel confident that I will see a future in which freedom comes. With T and others his age leading the way, the future looks bright. I have hope.

Thanks T.