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Forum Post: White America Is Oblivious to the Truth About Black Poverty

Posted 8 months ago on April 6, 2014, 3:41 p.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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White America Is Oblivious to the Truth About Black Poverty

Sunday, 06 April 2014 12:04
By Deborah Small, AlterNet | Op-Ed

http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/22923-white-america-is-oblivious-to-the-truth-about-black-poverty

There’s been a fascinating debate over the past few weeks between Ta-Nehisi Coates from the Atlantic and New Yorkmagazine’s Jonathan Chait regarding the language President Obama employs in addressing African-American communities. Obama’s been criticized by Coates and other supporters for using rhetoric that reinforces the belief shared by many on the right, that personal initiative and hard work is sufficient to overcome the obstacles confronting many young black men despite the continued existence of institutional racism in education, employment, healthcare, criminal justice and civic participation (to name a few).

Chait replied with, “I agree that racial discrimination persists, but I don’t believe this fact abnegates the possibility that a culture of poverty exists as well.” Chait believes President Obama is uniquely suited to speak to black people about changing self-destructive behavior:

But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. ….Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior.

In the most recent volley of exchanges, Chait takes Coates to task for ascribing views to him he does not hold. The column is titled: Ta-Nehisi Coates Disagrees With ‘Jonathan Chait,’ and So Do I. Chait states clearly he does not equate black culture with a "culture of poverty" as do Bill O’Reilly and many on the right, but he does see a link between persistent poverty and culture.

So let me explain what I do think. The culture of poverty is not solely or even primarily a black problem. It is a problem arising from concentrated poverty, and — as a result of both historic and ongoing racism — concentrated poverty disproportionately afflicts African-American communities. Obama understands that he commands prestige that can make him an inspirational figure in say, poor black neighborhoods in Chicago that he lacks in, say, poor white towns in West Virginia. As I’ve said, I understand Coates’ practical objections to this tactic.

The reaction I’ve seen online to this debate suggests a lot of readers on both sides investing a great deal of broader meanings into it — identity, authenticity, yet another endless iteration of the meta question of How We Talk About Race. I have no interest in playing a role in that drama. What interests me is a real and vital public-policy debate over the relationship between culture and poverty.

In Chait’s view, understanding the relationship between culture and poverty is essential to developing effective anti-poverty programs. He seems to view Coates' negation of this relationship as an example of aggressive misreading of his intentions and that of other white liberals rooted in racial hostility. Ultimately, he complains Coates negates the steady progress of U.S. race relations and the steady improvement in conditions and circumstances for the majority of African Americans.

Coates and I disagree about racial progress in America. Coates sees the Americas’ racial history as a story of continuity of white supremacy. I see the sequence (I’d call it a progression, but that term would load the argument in my favor) that began with chattel slavery and has led to the Obama administration as a story of halting, painful, non-continuous, but clear improvement. Coates associates himself with a quote from Malcolm X: “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches, and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”

The analogy defines out of existence the very possibility of steady progress. People who subscribe to this way of thinking won’t agree with measures that reduce but fail to eliminate racial discrimination, or those that reduce but fail to eliminate poverty, or reduce but fail to eliminate medical deprivation.

Jonathan Chait is right about one thing—this is an ongoing and somewhat circular debate of limited utility, at least within the present frame. There are valid arguments to be made that persistent poverty leads to persistent deficits that impact health, well-being and lifestyle in ways that can continue across generations, yet the percentage of poor people who generally fall into this category is fairly small.

The majority of those classified as poor in the U.S. are people who work but don’t make enough money to support themselves or their children, or they are people who have worked in the past but now find themselves permanently excluded from the workforce. The oft-cited statistic of female-headed households living in poverty—31%—is as much a result of the economic disadvantage women still face in the workforce and lack of affordable childcare as it is a reflection of their poor life choices. The “culture of poverty” can’t be used to explain why 25% of Hispanics are living in poverty, despite exhibiting the work ethic and family cohesion associated by whites with "middle-class" success. And yet conservatives and liberals alike continue to focus on the subset of people who are the "persistently poor" as representative of the whole.

So who are these people? Contrary to Paul Ryan’s admittedly inarticulate assertion, the locus of persistent poverty is not in our "inner cities." The large majority—85.3%—of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetropolitan. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84% of persistent-poverty counties in the South comprising more than one-fifth of all counties in the region. Whether black, white or indigenous, the majority of poor Americans live in rural communities away from large cities. Most live in the southern region, in states whose leaders are committed to cutting assistance for the poor, keeping wages low, denying access to healthcare and empowering corporate extraction of natural resources. These facts are not new; they are consistent with trends that have endured for well over a century.

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[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Conservatives and liberals alike prefer to focus on perceived deficits in black and brown people than on structural racism and the concepts of white supremacy that undergird it as the principal reasons for disparate conditions and outcomes for many blacks and Hispanics. White privilege means not having to think about the many ways the lives of those who are classified as white are enhanced and protected by the subjugation and exclusion of racial minorities. White privilege provides white ethnics escape from the stigma of poverty. As historian Nell Irvin Painter aptly distinguishes, “Not all black people are poor, but among the people in America defined by race, black people tend to be the poorest.”

Similarly, the link between poverty and criminality is dubious at best. The vast majority of poor people do not engage in criminal activity despite our tendency to label more and more things crimes. Lack of opportunity breeds disillusionment, which leads to disorder, a conclusion reached more than four decades ago by the Kerner Commission charged with investigating the causes of urban rebellions in the summer of 1967:

Although Negro men worked as hard as the immigrants, they were unable to support their families. The entrepreneurial opportunities had vanished. As a result of slavery and long periods of unemployment, the Negro family structure had become matriarchal; the males played a secondary and marginal family role—one which offered little compensation for their hard and unrewarding labor. Above all, segregation denied Negroes access to good jobs and the opportunity to leave the ghetto. For them, the future seemed to lead only to a dead end.

Today, whites tend to exaggerate how well and quickly they escaped from poverty. The fact is that immigrants who came from rural backgrounds, as many Negroes do, are only now, after three generations, finally beginning to move into the middle class.

By contrast, Negroes began concentrating in the city less than two generations ago, and under much less favorable conditions. Although some Negroes have escaped poverty, few have been able to escape the urban ghetto. Pervasive unemployment and underemployment are the most persistent and serious grievances in minority areas. They are inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder.

What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

Therein lies the essential dilemma beneath this debate. What should be the focus of attention and reform efforts: changing the behavior of people trapped in cycles of poverty and marginalization, or changing the economic, social and political institutions that sustain the racial and economic status quo? The bootstrap approach advocated by President Obama and majority of the elite community seems to accept the intractable nature of white privilege and keeps the burden on poor communities of color to continuing absorbing the harms of institutional racism while white Americans continue the slow work of transforming their racial attitudes.

What Chait’s liberal analysis of American racism fails to acknowledge is racism was created to achieve an economic purpose. Anglo-Americans didn’t start out as racists, they became racists in order to justify their chosen economic system, which relied on the exploitation of enslaved black labor. The principal motive for racism was and still is, profit.

One of the many things that infuriates black people, at least it does me, is the obliviousness of white Americans to the ways they project onto black people the pathological and violent behavior they have engaged in and seem to have collectively whitewashed from their memories. In the almost 400 years that African people have been in this country we’ve been subjected to continuous murder, rape, brutality, dehumanization and mob terror at the hands of whites (lynching ended a century ago only to be replaced by extra-judicial police killings) and yet the contemporary narrative is that whites are justified in their fear of blacks, especially black men. Seriously? Modern policing is based on this premise—one that whites rarely question and have trouble understanding as a source of black rage.

On the subject of pathology, there is a huge disparity between what white America did and what it remembers it did. Here’s a quick refresher that we can’t forget and you must remember:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUQQgMYGCNs&feature=player_embedded

I don’t know any instances in American history where thousands of black people gathered to watch the ritualistic killing of a white person as spectator sport.

Lest you say, those are isolated events from the past and the majority of white people are not like that anymore, I call your attention to a recent report demonstrating a substantial gap in support for the death penalty, with whites much more in favor than blacks or Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Research poll overall support for the death penalty is 55%. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63%, compared to 40% for Hispanics and 36% for blacks. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues persuasively that white support for the death penalty is rooted in its history as a tool for whites to control and protect themselves from blacks. He connects the past to the present with the results of another recent study:

In 2007, two researchers tried to gauge racial differences on capital punishment and assess how blacks and whites responded to arguments against the practice. Their core findings with black Americans weren’t a surprise—in general, blacks were receptive to any argument against the death penalty.

Their findings with whites, on the other hand, were disturbing. Not only were whites immune to persuasion on the death penalty, but when researchers told them of the racial disparity—that blacks faced unfair treatment—many increased their support.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SUQQgMYGCNs&feature=player_embedded

White privilege permits people to ignore the reflection of their own pathologies in others.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

Razor Wire, Prison Cells, and Black Panther Robert H. King's Life of Resistance: An Interview With Filmmaker Ron Harpelle

Sunday, 06 April 2014 13:02
By Staff, Angola 3 News | Interview

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22927-razor-wire-prison-cells-and-black-panther-robert-h-kings-life-of-resistance-an-interview-with-filmmaker-ron-harpelle

A new 40-minute documentary film by Canadian History Professor Ron Harpelle, entitled Hard Time, focuses on the life of Robert Hillary King, who spent 29 years in continuous solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned and he was released from Louisiana's infamous Angola State Prison in 2001.

Along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Robert King is one of three Black Panther political prisoners known as the Angola 3. Last October, Herman Wallace died from liver cancer just days after being released from prison. Albert Woodfox remains in solitary confinement to do this day, with the upcoming date of April 17, 2014 marking 42 years since he was first placed there.

When Albert Woodfox's conviction was overturned for a third time in February 2013, his release was halted because the Louisiana Attorney General immediately appealed to the US Fifth Circuit Court, despite an Amnesty International campaign calling on the AG to respect US District Court Judge James Brady's ruling and not appeal. The Amnesty campaign (take action here) is now calling for Woodfox's immediate release.

In March, Amnesty released a new interview with Teenie Rogers, the widow of correctional officer Brent Miller, the man who Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were wrongfully convicted of murdering. "This needs to stop, for me and my family to get closure," Rogers says. She expresses sadness that she tried but was unable to see Herman before he passed and explains: "I am speaking out now because I don't want another innocent man to die in prison."

In an email message sent out by Amnesty, Robert King said: "Teenie believes me. She believes that the Angola 3 had nothing to do with her husband's murder. She believes that Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and I suffered years of cruel solitary confinement as innocent men...The state hasn't done justice by her, either. She's angry. We both are. Louisiana authorities are hell bent on blaming the wrong person. Well, I'm hell bent on setting him free."

Hard Time was recently shown in Canada at both the Toronto and Montreal Black Film Festivals, following Robert King's testimony in Chicago about solitary confinement at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier that month. On April 20, Hard Time will be shown in Paris, with French subtitles, at the Ethnografilm Festival.

The full, 40-minute version of Hard Time can now be viewed online, along with Ron Harpelle's previous film, entitled In Security. Our interview with Harpelle is featured below.

Angola 3 News: How do the issues examined by your earlier film In Security relate to your new film, Hard Time, about Robert King, the Angola 3, and the use of solitary confinement in US prisons? How did In Security lead you to Robert King and the eventual making of Hard Time?

Ron Harpelle: I stumbled onto Robert King while working on In Security, a film about barbed wire. I’m a historian who happens to make documentary films and what really interests me is how things we see as a part of everyday life have evolved and shaped the society we live in. My film about barbed wire shows how a simple 19th century innovation in agriculture became a means of restraining the movements of people and a universal symbol of oppression.

Barbed wire is also known as the “Devil’s Rope” and my objective was to make a film that would leave audiences thinking about the barbarism that surrounds us all the time. The film consists of a series of vignettes about barbed wire that tie the stories of dispossession, suffering and punishment together, and it is dedicated to the Angola 3. In Security covers a little more than a century of history and it ends in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola.

I contacted the prison authorities and asked if I could somehow be allowed to film in the prison. To my surprise, they wrote back immediately and welcomed me to tour the facility. This was my first time in a prison and I knew that for the purposes of my film I had hit the jackpot. I had already filmed in the West Bank, which is a big prison, and in South Africa, where they produce a razor wire with a fish hook blade that is designed to cut and catch. What I needed was something that brought the film to a conclusion and Angola is the most spectacular example of barbed wire. This is when I started to read the history of corrections in Louisiana and of Angola.

I soon discovered Robert King living in Austin and I made arrangements to meet him when I was in town on my way to film a segment of In Security at the border wall in Brownsville. I’m not sure what he thought about me, a Canadian interested in razor wire, but I really had no idea what sort of man King would be. I don’t know what I expected other than someone who would be able to tell the film’s viewers what it was like to be locked up in a prison for such a long time.

When I knocked on his door I was greeted by a mild mannered man living in a small house decorated with Panther paraphernalia in every corner. I had read his book and searched the internet for information about him and the A3. I really couldn’t believe my luck at finding a subject like Robert King and I only hoped that he would be a good interview. In my mind I was arriving to ask a wise man to share his thoughts with me and I quickly cut to the chase by asking him to tell me about barbed wire. That’s when King told me he couldn’t help me with my film because, he said, “Where they kept me it was nothing but steel bars and concrete.” That was the moment I realized that another film, a sort of sequel to In Security, would have to be made. Robert King didn’t make it into In Security, but he also didn’t end up on the cutting room floor.

Like most people, I had never given solitary confinement more than a passing thought. I knew it existed and I knew about injustice and cruelty in the penal system, but I had never been obliged to think about it. I had also never had the privilege of meeting someone like Robert King. During that first meeting I asked him all the questions people who first meet him ask and I got the answers he usually gives. Like all those answers that I have now heard so many times, he was sincere and insightful and as always, it was as though he was being asked the questions for the first time.

I had never met a Black Panther either. They weren’t big in Canada and by the time I became politically aware, they were a thing of the past. I’m too young to remember the summer of ‘68, but there were a lot of draft dodgers and other leftists in our universities, so I read many of the books that Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and King read in prison. I was, therefore, taken with King’s politics and fascinated by the story of his radicalization. I saw that King has a loyal network of committed people around him who support the A3 cause. In him I saw an opportunity to make another film, this time about the life of a remarkable man.

The result is a film called Hard Time. I didn’t have much of a budget for the film but I knew it was one that had to be made. Anyone who follows the news about the A3 knows that Robert King is a moving target. I work with my wife and together we stalked King for about a year whenever our paths came close to each other. In this way I met several of the people who are closest to King and I interviewed some of them. But in the end, the film is just about King and it is his story punctuated with archival footage and photographs.

Filmmaking is a cooperative venture and Robert King was a cooperative subject. When the film started to come together I sent a copy to King and he told me after viewing the rough cut that it was “impactive.”

I see it as a film that can take King’s story to all the places he can’t go himself. I do not make films that confirm what people already know, so I made Hard Time to help explain the history of civil rights and the Black Panthers to new audiences. Robert King is the thread that runs through this history.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

A3N: Could you say more about your time spent with King?

RH: I wouldn’t spend time with him if he wasn’t a pleasure to be around. When we first met he would often say things like “I’ve had a lot of time to think about that.” He doesn’t say that to me so much anymore because our conversations have changed. I no longer ask many personal questions about him. Instead, we talk about issues and like anyone who has had a lot of time to think about things, and his responses are thoughtful and referenced. King is easy going but he is a man who is making up for lost time and he has both a political consciousness and a cause. I now spend lots of time thinking about what King says and trying to answer his questions.

When I last spent time with King he had just come from the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago where he was on a panel about the long-term effect of solitary confinement. I joked with King that he was not exactly the best example of all the damage solitary has on a human being. There is no escaping the fact that for three decades he was the subject of cruel and unusual punishment, but his spirit is such that he gets up every morning with the drive to change the world. This is a remarkable statement about King’s personality and humanism.

A3N: Looking at the Angola 3 case, and more specifically the continuation of Albert Woodfox’s nearly 42 years in solitary despite his conviction having been overturned for a third time last year, what do you think motivates Louisiana authorities? Is it to be vengeful as Amnesty International argues?

RH: Vengeance is one thing that motivates some, but it is the system that permits the Louisiana authorities to act in the way they have.

When I visited Angola I was shown around by a man who was doing his job, just like all the other people working there who are doing their jobs. I was shocked when he told me that the only educational program offered in Angola is a religious program that enables prisoners to become preachers. Evidence of the success of this program are the numerous churches that have been built on the prison. I was told that it would be a waste of money to provide any other kind of education to the 5200 men in the prison because most were going to die in Angola and would never be able to use their education.

However, there is some training because everybody except those in solitary work until they die and the prison turns a profit by selling commercial crops and manufacturing things like license plates. It also turns a profit by holding two rodeos per year where several thousand people from the outside go to watch men who did not grow up on a ranch risk their lives in an attempt to win a bit of money. The prisoners work off the cost of incarceration in the fields and factories run by prison industries at a rate of 4 to 20 cents an hour. We speak of slave wages, but even slaves had more freedom than the men in Angola.

The US is one of the most affluent societies in world history and it seems to me that since most of the men and women who end up in prison are poor people, a better use of their time in prison would be to provide them with an education and programs that would allow them to work off the negative effects of being, as King puts it, from the “bottom of the heap.” The authorities are merely products of a system that relies on convict labor.

It is also not just the A3 and Albert Woodfox who are victims of the system. They just released Glenn Ford, a man who spent 30 years on death row in Angola for a crime he did not commit. Albert remains in prison as the last of the A3 to be in solitary but there are 80,000 other men and women in 6 by 9 cells across the United States. I’m sure that some of these people are a danger to themselves or to others, but keeping tens of thousands of people in cages is the sign of a society that is in real trouble.

A3N: What about Albert and the A3 do you think LA authorities have viewed as the biggest threat?

RH: The A3 are a threat because they challenged the system and their case can change the system.

I use the present tense because I was with King in New Orleans to show Hard Time and after the film a man stood up and said: “You maybe don’t remember me, but 35 years ago I was in CCR with Herman, Albert and you, and you saved my life. I spent three years in solitary and you taught me how to survive. When I got out of solitary I turned my anger into something positive, I did my time, and I am here today to thank you.” I should also add that there were maybe 30 men in the room and judging from what I heard, as a group they had spent a total of about 600 years in Angola. That’s 600 years of labor, 600 years of suffering, 600 years of lost opportunity for humanity.

Albert’s 42 years are easy to focus on, but there are 2.5 million men and women in prison in the United States on any given day. Every year that’s 2.5 million years of contributions to society that are lost. Not all of these people can contribute more than they cost society, but most of them can and it is incumbent on the authorities in Louisiana and elsewhere to see them as more than just an alternative to slave labor.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

A3N: What message do you hope that viewers of Hard Time will walk away with after seeing your film?

RH: The message of hope is, as King says, “just put one foot in front of the other and you will get there.” That’s what the struggle for human rights and social justice is.

I think that when viewers meet Robert King and find out how he overcame the most incredible obstacles to become the man he is, they can look around at their own situation and see how many options there really are that will allow them to make a better life for themselves and for all the rest of us. There is a message of hope in his story and it is for anyone who dreams of a better future and is willing to pitch in to make it happen.

I think that most people who see the film or, better yet, meet King, come away with admiration and inspiration. This is the King effect. How can anyone really complain about their lot in life after hearing about what Robert King endured, how he succeeded in conquering a mountain of injustice and how he now spends just about every waking moment working to benefit those left behind and all those victims of injustice somewhere in the world that he will never know?

Hard Time is a story about a man who is making a difference.

A3N: As you have interacted with the audience at recent screenings in Montreal, Toronto, and beyond, how has Hard Time been received?

RH: It is a strange thing to have the subject of your film with you and ready to answer questions after the screening. They never line up to talk to me, but they certainly line up to meet King. He must be tagged in hundreds of photos on Facebook and I’ve seen blogs and other post-screening media that illustrate the power of his presence and message.

Let’s also remember that there is a difference in Canada. Most of the members of the audience are either West Indians or Africans, or their Canadian offspring. Canada was not a prime destination for slaves and our immigration laws only opened up in the 1950s. The Underground Railroad brought more runaway slaves to Canada than slavery brought slaves. Our racism is focused differently.

Our host for the events in both Toronto and Montreal was a prominent Haitian woman and Haitians freed themselves from slavery in 1804. What this means is that the majority of the people in the audience had lived experiences that are very different from those of Robert King. Their reality in a city like Toronto or Montreal is different from that of people living in places like Louisiana. These are people with their own civil rights heroes but they can identify with the themes and stories in Hard Time.

Another side of this is the Montreal media experience. Robert King was featured in the most important newspapers and on a television show called Tout le monde en parle. The title means “everyone is talking about it,” and his 15 minute interview was alongside leading Quebec celebrities, including Justin Trudeau, a man who may well be our next Prime Minister. This was the royal treatment in a province that hates royalty. They even cracked open a bottle of wine, toasted King on national television and gave him a standing ovation. Over a million viewers heard him answer questions and thousands more watched it online.

King was also a guest on the Prison Radio Show at McGill University and a few other media outlets. Not only that, but the Montreal screening was introduced by the U.S. Consul General to Montreal.

All of this media attention adds up in the internet universe and helps draw attention to Albert Woodfox and the system that puts millions of people behind bars.

A3N: In Hard Time, King reflects on the early formation of his political consciousness leading up to joining the Black Panther Party: “After getting 35 years…I began to feel that I owed no more obligation to the system... I had no moral obligation to a system that was designed to oppress and to oppress certain people…I began to look at that which was legal and that which was moral….Slavery was legal but just because it was legal did not mean that it was morally right.”

As a filmmaker, how do you think films and other forms of activist-oriented media can be used to affect similar changes in people’s consciousness, like the metamorphosis described by King? Did you style your film in any particular way, so as to affect this type of consciousness change in the audience?

RH: I like to think that I make films for people who are between about 15 and 25. This is because I believe that this age group is the near future and they are still young enough to be open to new ideas.

I have been an activist for some time, but it was only when I started making films that I was able to see the kind of impact the medium can have. This is because films do not require effort on the part of the viewers, but, if the viewer is open to new ideas, they penetrate like no other medium.

Hard Time begins with some basic information about Robert King and the Angola 3 and ends with some statistics about incarceration in the United States. Connecting this basic information is a history lesson told by Robert King. His way of speaking combined with the archival footage and images I was able to find tell a compelling tale of the 1960s and the rise of Black Power. We do hear a bit about the brutality of prison, but this is mainly left to the imagination of the viewer because Hard Time is meant to be an inspirational film.

All of this is presented in a subtle manner so that the film can get under the radar of the censors who keep ideas out of schools and away from the young people I want to reach.

A3N: Any closing thoughts?

RH: The film is available for free online but I hope that people will not watch it alone. It is important that individuals come together to discuss Robert King’s story.

There are all sorts of lessons that can be learned and all sorts of possibilities for people to take collective action to make a change in our world. This film can and should be used to engage people in the A3 case and injustices everywhere.

There is so much that needs to be done in so many communities. This is what Robert King learned while in prison and it is the lesson he shares with the world.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

Resistance to Racism Intensifies in the Netherlands

Sunday, 06 April 2014 14:24
By Bryan Van Hulst, Waging Nonviolence | Report

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22932-resistance-to-racism-intensifies-in-the-netherlands

The reality of everyday violence caused by institutionalized and historically embedded racism in the Netherlands is bringing about new forms of resistance among the country’s most marginalized, challenging the boundaries of Dutch politics and national identity. A march organized against racism on March 22 was the most public and organized expression of this new wave of discontent.

“We are all Moroccans!” was the chant that dominated the streets of Amsterdam as an estimated 8,000 people marched against racism in the city. The chant was a direct response to the national uproar ignited by far right politician Geert Wilders, who, in the wake of recently held municipal elections, asked his supporters whether they want “more or less Moroccans.” His crowd enthusiastically chanted in response “Less, less, less!” Politicians, media outlets and white Dutch citizens were quick in publicly denouncing Wilders, giving an apparent sense of national unity against racism.

“These are statements that are absolutely unacceptable, disgusting” said the Dutch Minister of Justice Ivo Opstelten. “This does not fit in a country like the Netherlands. He [Wilders] needs to take it back.”

The online world has consolidated a popular stance against Wilders, with one Facebook page that urges people to file an official complaint against Wilders, accruing almost 100,000 followers in less than a week.

While enthusiasm and optimism are growing among those forging this national front, others remain skeptical. Activist Ramona Sno sees the trend as an expression of hypocrisy.

“It’s rather unbelievable that half of the country is shaken up by the Wilders statement, while we have a long tradition of systematically denying and playing down racism in the Netherlands,” she said. “Parties like PvdA [labor] and VVD [liberal] now pretend to firmly oppose racism, while quite explicit racism has been normalized among members of their own parties.”

Hans Spekman, a member of the Labor Party and spokesperson on poverty and asylum-related policies, recently assured that “mischievous Moroccans must be degraded before the eyes of their own people.” Similarly, the leader of the Labor Party, Diederik Samsom, said in 2011 that Moroccans own an “ethnic monopoly” over public disorder, which should be met with “a physical or verbal slap” by the police, family and fellow citizens. Neither of these statements were met with the same backlash as Wilders is currently witnessing.

At the same time, the recent popular opposition to the Dutch blackface tradition was not condemned as racist by either the majority of white Dutch citizens or the political establishment. The current fight against racism thus appears for some skeptics, as Ramona suggests, selectively hand-picked by those in the position of power.

While there might be little faith in politicians to make fundamental changes to racist speech, symbolism and policies in the Netherlands, marginalized minorities are increasingly more audacious and resilient in forcing the issue of racism and its violent effects on the socio-political agenda.

BornHere, Staying Here

The Dutch-Moroccan rapper Salah Edin sparked a controversy with his lyrics in 2007 for allegedly inciting radicalization among youth of immigrant backgrounds. “The country with the highest percentage of Muslim haters,” he says in the song entitled “The Country Of,” criticizing the Netherlands. “The country that sees us as danger and terror… The country of rights, but where what they decide is obligation. The country where I was born, but where do I come from? The country that labels me as Moroccan cunt.” While the lyrics shocked a white Dutch crowd, they seem to speak a palpable truth about an invisible reality that most immigrant youth today face.

Sixteen percent of non-white Dutch citizens, 28 percent of youth and 40 percent in the most marginalized urban neighborhoods are unemployed, according to the Annual Integration Report in 2013. This is predominantly caused, the report suggests, by racial prejudice among employers. Also, poverty is significantly more prevalent among non-whites. Twenty percent of Turkish and Moroccan people live below the poverty line — three times more than their white Dutch counterparts.

Police violence and intimidation, stop and search, detention, longer and harsher penitentiary sentences are also disproportionately endured by people of color. This was most recently confirmed by an Amnesty International report whose findings were outright rejected by the Dutch police force.

“No, I don’t feel protected by the police,” remarked one of the interviewees in the Amnesty report. “In fact, I have to protect myself from them in some cases. As a citizen you are not heard anyways.”

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 8 months ago

Such views and experiences are not uncommon among Dutch Moroccans in the Netherlands. The Moroccan label carries a heavy weight of negative connotations, usually associated with criminality, terrorism, general backwardness, hyper-masculinity and unchecked misogyny and homophobia. Politicians, police generals and media pundits propagate these racialized and gendered stereotypes, thereby legitimizing policies that further marginalize and criminalize ethnic minorities, while compounding a culture of racism in the labor market, education system, police force and judiciary.

In the face of these dehumanizing and marginalizing processes, Dutch Moroccan youth have grown restless with the current system, taking it upon themselves to assert their claim to power.

The #BornHere hashtag, which trended on Twitter in March, was the most recent manifestation of this resistance. Second and third generation Dutch Moroccan youth asserted pride and recognition of their hybrid, yet stigmatized, identities by tweeting pictures of themselves defiantly displaying their Dutch passports. This was a direct response to an earlier electoral promise Wilders made “for a city with fewer problems, and if it’s at all possible, a few fewer Moroccans.”

The hashtag further aimed at subverting the dominant discourse and policy that demands Dutch Moroccans assimilate, integrate and normalize to white Dutch “norms and values,” let go of their “backward” Moroccan heritage, and become “more like us.” The claim to both Moroccan and Dutch identities, then, seeks to redefine traditional and conservative notions of Dutchness so as to include difference rather than extinguishing it.

The hashtag trend is indicative of the importance the online world has in providing a rare public space for marginalized and dissident voices to speak out in the Netherlands. In a country where black voices are rarely heard or simply silenced, social media is becoming a powerful tool in facilitating empowerment and solidarity among society’s most oppressed.

The multinational retail chain Hema, for instance, recently came under fire because security guards mistook Yosra Aajir, a 17-year-old Dutch-Moroccan girl, for a junkie. The guards publicly humiliated, detained and abused her, and subsequently had her arrested by the police. Aajir, in fact, is diabetic and had gone to a changing room to inject her necessary medication before the security guards checked up on her. When she tried to explain her medical situation she was accused of deception. “That’s what a lot of ‘allochtonen’ [aliens/foreigners] do,” she was told.

Aajir and her family and friends started a Facebook page calling for a national boycott of Hema, further making the case that this was not an isolated racist incident, but in fact, all too common at Hema stores. The chain had been under the spotlight before for firing a female employee because she wore a headscarf as well as selling cakes that featured photos of a Hitler salute with the text: “Islamic culture is backward.” The Facebook page gained 14,000 followers within days and sparked public debate, as well as protest, on racism both on and offline. Social media is thus also becoming the means by which marginalized voices can incite public discourse and challenge unquestioned truths.

Reclaiming Dignity

But the #BornHere hashtag has a more profound underlying demand: full human recognition of the Dutch Moroccan as a citizen, not “criminal” or “terrorist.” It’s in Schilderswijk — the most impoverished and stigmatized neighborhood in the Hague — where poverty, unemployment and police violence are rife that resistance for human dignity is gaining new ground.

“As a ‘foreigner’ we can keep our mouths closed, but we have done that long enough,” said Mohamed Ghay, spokesperson of the recently founded Action Committee for the Restoration of Trust in Schilderswijk. “You see what that has brought us. It’s time that we make our voices heard. This cannot continue any longer.”

The committee was formed in January to end racial profiling and police violence in the neighborhood. The committee collected a total of 95 complaints against police brutality by residents and has put enough pressure on the mayor of the Hague and the police force that they have begun to listen to their demands. This is unprecedented, according to Ghay.

“Often people want to file a complaint against the police, but they are just outright rejected as if you are not a citizen and have no rights,” he said. “Now they cannot do that any longer because the evidence is piling up.”

The committee has also been successful in forcing the previously invisible issue of police violence and racial profiling into the public spotlight through television appearances on mainstream news outlets.

In recent months, the resistance has emboldened Dutch Moroccans to be more defiant of normalized racial violence in personal encounters. At one skirmish between police officers and a male Schilderswijk resident, he angrily denounced the arbitrary aggression of the police as racist, escaped and ran off while holding his passport in the air.

“I’m also a citizen! I’m also a citizen! You can’t do this!” he was heard yelling at the police.

Similarly, two Dutch Moroccan men recently interrupted a political debate on unemployment in Amsterdam and confronted the politicians for being “out of touch” with the reality on the ground.

“I am awake, and I am here to wake you up,” said Safoan, a former immigrant youth organizer in Amsterdam. “There are no jobs for you if you are Moroccan. There is no future for you if you are Moroccan. Here you are shot to death by the police. People come here to drown.”

While politicians, mainstream media outlets and the majority of white Dutch citizens might seek to forge a national front against the racism of the far right politician Geert Wilders, the grassroots and decentralized resistance coming from all over the country appears to be more ambitious. It is seeking to radically alter dominant notions of Dutch identity and belonging while inciting public debate on the detrimental effects of racist policies and discourses on human lives. Decades of silence, marginalization and state violence are birthing this wave of discontent which, at the moment, appears to mark merely the beginning of something new.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.