Monthly Archives: August 2012

Color Consciousness

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This summer, as a project of the UUCM Undoing Racism Committee, I have been reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Included in Alexander’s argument is the contention that civil rights leaders, the very people who should be leading the charge against mass incarceration, have turned a blind eye. Comfortable championing the model citizen, the civil rights movement has been slow to fly the same flags of righteousness in defense of the incarcerated. Constrained by “the politics of respectability,” civil rights leaders have worked to prove our ‘worthiness,’ demonstrating that Blacks are “just like” read “just as good as” Whites. This posture makes it difficult to advocate on behalf of criminals who, after all, “must have done something wrong.”

Alexander works to demonstrate that many of the people corralled into the system through the war on drugs are innocent – or at least, not very guilty. They could be any of us. But some criminals are guilty. They have broken the law. How do we fight for the rights of these people?

The answer is twofold. First, it requires that we embrace an ethic of forgiveness. All of us make mistakes. And many of us will break a law: smoking a joint, drinking underage, speeding on a highway or city street. The test of our character – both individual and as a society – is how we respond. Do we strip individuals of their rights in perpetuity, or do we forgive? Second, it calls for a recognition that this system of mass incarceration is not just about crime-fighting. It is, instead, a system of racial control. But it’s difficult to talk about mass incarceration as a system of racial control in a post racial America. How do we allege ‘racism’ at a set of laws that are ostensibly race neutral.

Alexander poses this as the difference between “colorblindness” and “color consciousness.”  Colorblindness is the idea that we no longer see race. We make policy and treat each other as if race does not exist. This concept,  Alexander argues, has dominated our political stance toward race since the “success” of the Civil Rights Movement. With the achievements of policies like Affirmative Action and the visible evidence of successful Black Americans – epitomized by the election of Barack Obama – we seem to have within our grasp a world where we are indeed judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.  The problem, it turns out, is that there is a vast difference between judging one by the color of her skin – and acknowledging the color of one’s skin. It’s the difference, I’ll pull from today’s sermon, between “tolerating” where we just ignore our differences and allowing/challenging ourselves to be transformed by grappling with our differences.

How can we explain the persistence of what looks and feels like racism in a world of colorblindness? And how do we sound the alarm, raise the issue, without being accused of “playing the race card?” Reverend Al Sharpton, on his syndicated radio program – The Hour of Power – put it this way: When we’re playing with a stacked, racial deck – we can’t help but pull out a race card. In other words, in a system that at it’s very foundation has been based on racial difference and racial oppression, this will inevitably be manifested in our institutions and policies. And making cosmetic changes, tinkering with the system, and refusing to acknowledge race won’t deliver us to a post-racial society.

Instead of colorblindness, Alexander suggests color consciousness.

A commitment to color consciousness places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.

But, in this day and age, this is no easy task. It seems at every turn, Americans are more interested in their individual circumstances than in the collective. And far too often, there is the suggestion that these two – the individual and the collective – are understood as at odds with each other. We are seriously having a national conversation about the value of Medicare and Social Security. Our 21st century values suggest that we should give our elders a stipend and let them fend for themselves – when it runs out, that’s their problem. And who are we that we begrudge struggling families food stamps? How did we get to the point where our idea of public education is to give every child a voucher so that families  can ‘purchase’ their education.

The question I came to in our discussion today is “What kind of people are we?” and What kind of people are we going to be?”

Are we a people who stingily guard what we have? Or are we a people who share with each other understanding that we are all in this together? Are we a people who write folks off when they make a mistake? Or are we a people with the capacity for forgiveness? Are we a people who can live with each other only if we ignore our differences? Or are we a people who are willing to be transformed by those differences?

Breast Density Bill – NOW

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With two trips to Chicago in two months this summer, I’ve been feeling a little financial strain. So when my NOW (National Organization of Women) membership renewal notice came in the mail, I was close to making the decision to let my membership lapse. Of course, I support the ideals and the work of NOW, but I’m a full-time student with part-time employment. I need to be ruthless about my financial decisions.

Still, based on a recent survey that I completed, I was invited to the NOW-NJ Essex county chapter monthly meeting. The meeting is actually a joint meeting of the Essex county chapter, which is the “women of color and allies” (WOCA) chapter, and the NOW-NJ task force on combating racism (CRTF). What an inspiring group of women!  The small group included: college professor, radio producer, lawyer, mother, real estate appraiser, retiree, computer geek…  And in their spare time, they are building alliances to take on racism and sexism in concrete ways in NJ. So of course, I have to put my money where my mouth is.

In NJ, the group is currently working on the NJ Breast Density Bill. In the senate, the bill (S-792) is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Nia H. Gill (D-Essex, Passaic). In the Assembly, the bill A-2022, is sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton (District 7-Burlington), Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (District 14-Mercer and Middlesex), Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson (District 37-Bergen), Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (District 6-Burlington and Camden), and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (District 20-Union).

You probably don’t know that forty percent of women have dense breast tissue, which is consistently associated with breast cancer risk. And mammography, the standard screening to detect breast cancer, misses cancer in dense breasts half the time. [from Are You  Dense?]  This is of particular concern to African American women who have denser breasts. [Visit the Black Women’s Health Imperative for more.] It’s not a very tricky mental leap to see the connections between breast density and the growing disparities in breast cancer survival. While African American women are at a lower risk for breast cancer than other women, we are more likely to die from the disease. This is in part because Black women are more likely to develop triple negative breast cancer – a particularly aggressive form of the disease, and in part because Black women are more likely to be diagnosed in later stages.

Better early detection can affect at least the latter. The NJ breast density bills can make a difference here. The bills would change current reporting to require that patients, not just doctors, are informed when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue. In addition, it would require that health insurers cover more comprehensive ultrasound screenings, when a mammogram indicates dense breast tissue, making cancer detection difficult. What this means is that when a woman goes for a mammogram, and the test indicates that she has breast dense tissue, she will get this information and she will be advised of the increased risk of breast cancer. So individual women, and not just their doctors, will be able to make decisions about whether or not to pursue further testing. And if she does decide to have an ultrasound, this will be covered by her health insurance. Thus, a woman’s chances of earlier detection are greatly increased.

So far, the bill has passed the NJ State Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the Assembly. This is definitely on the Essex County NOW agenda. Passage of the bill would make NJ one of only a handful of states with similar bills, including Connecticut, Texas, Virginia, and most recently New York.

Olympic Fever

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I’ve been disappointed to not be able to watch as much of the Olympics as I would have liked. But I did catch the men’s 10,000-meter track and field event this weekend – which got me thinking about the sports that I like most: track and field, gymnastics, swimming.  What stands out is that these are fairly solitary sports. Each of these has team events – there are running and swimming relays, and gymnastics team scores, but essentially, these sports are solitary endeavors. As a gymnast, when you hit the floor, or the bars, or the beam you are performing alone.  As a swimmer or a runner, your performance in a relay has an impact on your teammates and their performances, in turn, have an impact on yours, but the rules allow only one runner or swimmer in the lane at a time.

So, I was surprised this time around to be inspired by two stories of long-distance running teams. The most spectacular was the men’s 10,000 meter race. For the past 50 years, this event has been dominated by African athletes – particularly those from Ethiopia, Kenya. But on Saturday, the show was stolen by training partners Mo Farah (GBR) and Galen Rupp (USA) who took Gold and Silver respectively. From the beginning, it was clear that these two were running as a team. For the past year and a half, they have trained together in Oregon with world famous long-distance runner Alberto Salazar. Watch  as these two do their thing.

The second pair is marathoners Shalane Flanagan (USA) and Kara Goucher (USA). The Portland, OR based training partners finished 10th and 11th in the women’s marathon with times of 02:25:51 and 02:26:07 respectively. At the end of 26 miles, that’s just 3 minutes behind the winner. Sadly, the Olympics don’t post videos for 10th and 11th place but their 10-11 finish is a testament to the teamwork that pushed them along the grueling trail together.

And so, I wonder if that’s the difference between my solitary sports and these longer challenges.  A gymnastics routine is seconds – no more than a couple of minutes. A 400-meter swimming race is over in 5 minutes. On the track – that’s run in under a minute. Long distance running is another story. Farah and Rupp ran the 10,000 meter for over 27 minutes. Flanagan and Goucher ran together for almost 2-and-a-half hours.  We might be able to go the short drags alone, but the long journeys that require  teamwork – a partnership.