ACADEMIC* Freedom

I fully support academic freedom in higher education. Even with its double-edged-sword quality, I still defend it. I would like, however, for it to be practiced with a little more thoughtful “academic” and a little less unbridled “freedom”. I am not at all suggesting that there be some sort of curtailing of the freedom of speech on our campuses as that would defeat the purpose of open engagement. But, in my 18 years as a faculty member and 13 years of consulting and training in higher education I have noticed a long-standing confusion between freedom of speech as a basic tenet of U.S. society versus the deeper intention of academic freedom in higher education. Basic freedom of speech is the lifeblood of any democracy. And short of speech that endangers others (“fire” in a theater or hate speech that is readily associated with threats of violence), I do not believe it is healthy for a democratic republic to go down the slippery slope of limiting the freedom of speech.

Higher education, however, is different in that while it exists within the confines of a democratic republic, and thus presumably has the same latitude as everyday citizens regarding speech, it also exists within the shared agreement of “higher” and “education”, meaning that the bar for ideas that are exchanged in a college classroom should be higher than that of two people chatting at Starbucks (actually Starbucks could also use a slightly higher bar of conversation within their organization). By “higher” I mean the ideas proffered in the academy should be held to a higher scrutiny, the words shared on our campuses should have a higher level of consideration regarding their import and impact, and the ways we engage with each other on our campuses should represent our collective reaching toward higher levels of knowledge, skill and capacity. Too often, however, I find the threads on faculty list-serves to represent anything but the above, where full professors to adjuncts (more often full professors due to the security of their positions) put forth ideas that are not indicative of this higher ideal (or that they would actually even share if face to face with their colleagues). The one-degree-removed nature of the faculty list-serve creates a space where harsh, sometimes even abusive, commentary is put forth under the guise of “academic freedom”.

Looking first at the “freedom” portion of academic freedom, its emphasis is all too often taken to extremes and is not only harmful to individuals and corrosive to the overall academic environment, but it is an appalling degradation of the “higher” level of engagement we are told to expect from this nation’s colleges and universities. Of particular concern is the conflation of freedom with entitlement born out of long-standing oppressive systems that results in this “freedom” being inaccessible to some while overly accessed by others. In my campus consulting work I find “academic freedom” frequently used as a tool for the maintenance of power, privilege and access to resources held by dominant group members via its use to shut down marginalized voices, disregard calls for equity, and even portray dominant groups as the new “oppressed minority”. This is not new. Unfortunately, higher education has a long history of periodically backing the wrong horse (scientific racism, gender segregation, eugenics, and more) and has not done enough to repair the harm caused by these historic and current examples. The anything-goes tone of the “freedom” element on many of our campuses does nothing to remedy this history or help them be more just and equitable, and instead often fuels injustice and inequity.

While the “freedom” aspect of academic freedom at times misses the mark, the “academic” portion is often neglected, or worse used in a performative way that makes one’s argument seem like it is rooted in the academy when really it is just the academy being used as cover for various problematic ideas. For example, I absolutely have the right to say that the world is flat (literally flat, not flat in the Thomas L. Friedman sense) as per my freedom of speech in the U.S. And, in point of fact there are folks in this country who do posit that the physical world is flat. To this loosely identified group the insistence of a round world was and still is a scientific ploy to undermine the church, dinosaur fossils were placed there by god as a test of their faith, and the 6,000 year age of the earth is dictated by their reading of the Bible. And, while I emphatically disagree with every aspect of these ideas, I support the right of folks to express them; to a point. Where I draw the line is having “flat earth” ideas positioned as legitimate and debatable content in higher education. To use academic freedom as an excuse for the polluting of higher education with “flat earth” concepts and assert that they are equally valid to round earth evidence serves to make the “academic” portion of academic freedom laughable and the “higher” in higher education all but disappear.

And so let us stop conflating the mere right to free speech with the principle of academic freedom. Let’s debate finer points of already well-honed “astronomical” ideas rather than debate whether the earth is flat or (basically) round. I share this because when it comes to issues of equity on our campuses, I have been repeatedly shocked by what faculty feel entitled to say and then embarrassed that this is what we as academics are modeling as the penultimate arena for advanced thought in the U.S. Suggestions like “Students of color achieve at a lower rate than White students in STEM because they lack ‘grit’, have no interest in such challenging subjects, or do not possess the intellectual capacity to do hard science” should be commentary relegated to 18th and 19th century racist tomes, not coming out of the mouths of presumably well educated people in 2018. Or the belief that women cannot advance in schools of business or economics because they are too weak, overly emotional, unintelligent, and lack drive (as evidenced in a 2017 LA Times report on comments from male faculty in one university’s economics department), while common 60 years ago, should be unthinkable in today’s higher education environments for their complete lack of academic evidence.

And yet the double standard prevails – the work of faculty from historically marginalized communities that shows powerful evidence regarding dynamics of racism or sexism in the United States’ systems and structures (including higher education) is roundly rebuked by some faculty as “unacademic”, biased and a personal grudge while the basis of these dismissive faculty’s arguments is exactly that – unacademic, biased, personal and not at all founded in research, data, or fact. For example, campus climate surveys that indicate an unsafe and unsupportive environment for historically marginalized faculty are often dismissed by faculty from historically dominant social groups with little or no “evidence”. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that we limit the speech of cisgender men, White people, etc. In fact the accusation that I am is such a tired old trope that I’m always embarrassed for those who drag it out for one more go. Instead, I want higher education to be what it claims to be by modeling exchanges of “academic freedom” that are rooted in critical thought, self-reflection, a commitment to learn what we do not know, and a recognition that there is nothing noble in the practice of abusing colleagues that you disagree with or who are challenging your long-held pet ideas. That is not the art of debate and intellectual sparring, it is just bully behavior and should have no place in higher education.

Almost all of this planet let go of the idea that the world is flat centuries ago, perhaps it is time for faculty to let go of the notion that academic freedom means you can say anything you like and that all ideas are equally valid. In this current national climate, it is particularly important for higher education to set an example of thoughtful, analytical and civilized discourse based on fact and meaningful interrogation. What an embarrassing waste of time and energy to debate whether the world is flat. In its place, we should commit to learning, growth, and change in the same ways we ask our students to each day they are with us.

A Tale of Two Conferences

Written by Dr. Heather Hackman

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending two equity / social justice conferences back to back – the 19th annual “White Privilege Conference” (WPC) and Policy Link’s (PL) semi-annual “Equity Summit 2018”. What was striking to me about the second was the absence of what was central to the first. The work that Equity Summit folks were doing was impressive, especially from the vantage point of the majority People of Color / Native speakers in the plenary sessions. Glaringly missing, however, was any substantive attention to Whiteness. Conversely, the White Privilege Conference by its very nature centers the conversation on Whiteness as a means to attend to the core driving dynamic of racial oppression in the U.S. When the Equity Summit did name “white” it was often in the context of individual White people and not the ways that White privilege and White supremacy serve as the continual catalyst for this system, altogether. Said differently, White people would not work so hard to maintain racist housing segregation, despite red-lining being illegal, if they did not get something out of it – namely better housing, better schools, better transportation options, more access to multi-generational wealth brought about by property value increase, and the like. For the Equity Summit to discuss issues such as housing, education, criminal justice, etc. without naming this driving force is at best unfortunate and at worst deeply problematic. WPC knows this and chooses to go right to the heart of the matter as is evidenced by the extraordinary level of focus and organization of the conference on all that is necessary to bring about abiding and permanent racial justice for the U.S.

To elaborate, it is one thing for the Summit to call out racism in the prison industrial complex and emphasize the deeply urgent need to revamp the current prison system (or perhaps eliminate it altogether and replace it with something dramatically different). But, it is short-sighted to proffer that position without identifying that White folks from the private / economic sector, the political sector, and the social sector garner extraordinary power from the way the criminal justice system is currently operating and therefore will not simply yield that power because there is a louder call for us to change that system. For me, this omission left the conversation about criminal justice reform incomplete.

Even worse was a White, cis-male speaker on a panel about the role of philanthropy in racial equity work who continually suggested that cities “are just not educated enough” about how to use data and that their organization’s work is designed to “teach cities how to read and use data”. Aside from the deeply condescending tone this man had toward all cities, who are apparently too ignorant to know how to use data (rather than city workers often being overworked and underpaid, or unable to afford the software or time to do such sweeping data analysis), he had no idea whatsoever that his entire transactional, data-driven approach was steeped in Whiteness and racially dominant ways of perceiving government, social change, and the function of cities altogether. I was appalled that he was presenting this type of perspective at a conference on “equity” (primarily racial equity, it seems) and thankfully, two of the People of Color on the panel shut him down a bit – not so that he would notice it because I think he completely missed it, but certainly so the audience would notice it.

To be fair, one Equity Summit panel did talk about Whiteness (more than the entire rest of the conference combined) through its focus on gender justice as articulated by some very fierce POC/N speakers making the deep and critical connections between the system of patriarchy and gender oppression to that of racial oppression and Whiteness. The fact that this perspective stood out, however, speaks volumes about the lack of attention paid to Whiteness in the overall conference. Policy Link (PL) would do well to pay attention to the work of the White Privilege Conference (WPC) and take the very courageous step into a comprehensive racial justice approach in the way WPC does. In asking folks at the Summit about this, their response was that PL has never really paid attention to Whiteness largely because it is trying to work with majority, historically White leaders whom they did not want to alienate by naming Whiteness that explicitly. I have heard similar rumblings about the work of GARE and that it has no problem naming racism, but continually comes up short with respect to addressing the White privilege and White supremacy at the heart of so many government practices, policies procedures and programs that continually target POC/N folks and benefit and advantage White folks.

As is evidenced by the laser-like approach of the White Privilege Conference, we will never see an end to the system of racial oppression if we do not clearly and consistently call attention to the Whiteness driving it. As I left WPC fired up for more of the deep and hard work, but then went to PL’s Equity Summit, I was reminded yet again that even in spaces where racism is named there is still often a lack of willingness to call attention to Whiteness. Perhaps PL’s new leadership will use this transition as an opportunity to usher in a more comprehensive analysis (racism and Whiteness) of U.S. racial realities for all of the systems and structures they are trying to change. If that is too risky of a move for the POC/N leadership in terms of their safety and well-being, as is often the case when POC/N folks have spoken truth to power, then White people involved in Policy Link need to step up and speak up about Whiteness.

I look forward to the next Policy Link conference and hope that it has a chance to lean even harder into its work around racial justice and decolonization. This cannot be done without dismantling structures of Whiteness and I hope they make that move for the betterment of everyone who is trying to do this work. The time is surely now to do so.

Starbucks – Missing It By A Latte

Written by Dr. Heather Hackman

There has been quite a kafuffle about Starbucks closing for a whole day to do implicit bias training in response to the racial incident in Philly last week. To be clear, I do not doubt the intent and level of concern expressed by their CEO, Kevin Johnson. Nor am I questioning the knowledge, both professional and through personal experience, of the “consultants” they brought in to lead the day-long discussion. What I take issue with are three critical things: leadership, training, and time.

As a consulting group, we do not train front line staff unless the leadership of an organization has a) gone through extensive training itself, and b) done this training before the front line staff. The former is critical in that you simply cannot lead around issues you do not know, and the more power one has, the more in-depth the training and application needs to be. We meet many CEOs and organizational leaders who have read one piece of information or had one emotionally moving experience and are suddenly “motivated” to “go do something”, but in actuality are nowhere near being able to lead from an equity and social justice frame. Connected to this is the need for the leadership to be out in front of staff so that they can actually lead around these issues. It is often quite difficult to have the leader(s) of an organization going through their own “ah-ha’s” simultaneous to those that they supervise. The nature of training around race or gender or class or other social justice issues is such that there must be time to internally process, to lean into one’s edges, and to do the personal work necessary to change behaviors and apply a more socially just lens to their vision for the organization. This is almost impossible to do if the staff is having the same sets of experiences as leadership at the same time; the logical question from staff, “what are you going to do about it right now!?” cannot be answered if both are going through it together, and this can lead staff to doubt leadership’s ability to really do anything about racial issues within the organization.

Starbucks’ choice to send everyone through a training is good optics and will provide an opportunity for everyone to have together. But, with respect to a system of racial oppression that has been in place for 400 years, there is absolutely no way that one day of “implicit bias” training will do much of anything in terms of deep and substantive organizational change for Starbucks. This brings me to my second critique of this “day of training” – it’s not really training. I meet thousands of folks a year (mostly white, but also some people of color and Native peoples) who are badly educated about issues of race, racism and whiteness (RRW) in the U.S. It’s not surprising. I have spent enough years in teacher education and training P-12 folks to know that what we are taught in mainstream education (both public and independent) in terms of race, racism and whiteness is not just bad, it is explicitly false with the intention to avert our nation’s gaze from the racial tragedy of its past and present. Thus, the Starbucks employees for whom the U.S. is their first nation have been exposed to years and years of explicit and intentional lies about RRW and no one-day training en masse is going to make even a tiny dent in the deep and calcified socialization folks have received about RRW.

So why train like this? Because it “looks” like the organization is doing something. Most private sector organizational leaders have become profitable by learning how to maximize their performance in transactional spaces where solving problems and addressing issues is about decisiveness, taking charge and “doing something about it now”. That works well with phenomena that are themselves transactional. But, RRW are sociological phenomena and absolutely cannot be addressed in quick, transactional, check-list ways. This does not stop leaders form choosing this approach because the illusion of quick and strong action = effective solutions is a powerful one in the private sector. In white dominant spaces, this “rugged individual” and transactional manner actually serves to reinforce the dynamics of whiteness and in the end leaves the influence of the Racial Narratives, the systemic targeting of people of color and Native peoples, and the systemic advantaging of white people firmly in place because it has actually never been addressed.

Additionally, Starbucks did not choose actual racial equity trainers to lead this training. Rather they chose big names to match their desire to look like they’re doing big things about race. I’m not dismissing the incredible knowledge and life experience of former Attorney General Holder, for example, I’m simply suggesting that while brilliant, he is not best qualified to train on racial justice issues. Why? Because to be an effective trainer on this content one needs to know something about the art and science of teaching. Moreover, they need to be exceptional at training (not quite the same as teaching) – meaning they need to know exactly how to lead a racially complex group of people through the process of identifying RRW and uprooting it at its core. While the trainers chosen for this day-long are all knowledgeable with respect to their various sectors, none of them have the extensive experience training necessary to make real change at Starbucks. To the lay person who might also not have experience teaching and training on this content, however, the big names will likely be equated with “big action” and Starbucks will be let off the hook.

Connected to the above need to have long-standing experienced trainers do this work, is the fact that one day is absolutely not enough time to cover anything of substance. The mainstream corporate media has reported on the financial losses for Starbucks (roughly $12 million) taking this “bold” move of closing their stores. In so doing, the media reinforces the erroneous notion that one day is really going to change racial dynamics in Starbucks. I often encounter folks who say that HCG’s three-day training is simply too much time. I then suggest, however, that 400 years of racism compared to 24 hours of training time is really not much of a comparison. In addition to being steeped in that long national legacy, however, I remind participants that they have individually been miseducated (to varying degrees, depending on their identities) about these issues and therefore, again, 24 hours is actually nowhere near enough to counter that.

Ignorance about what is really at the heart of this nation’s racial reality leads companies like Starbucks to make misguided, and in the end unhelpful, choices about how to address RRW issues internally. But, if this is not the answer, what is an appropriate response? Here is a general outline of the approach we suggest for large organizations: 1) make sure leadership understands what RRW issues actually are and be sure that they are on board with the level of organizational change necessary to more fully address them, 2) work with an internal team to identify a strategic approach for training layer after layer of the organization beginning with the top levels of leadership and working down to the ground, 3) implement various forms of firm-wide assessment to know where participants are starting, and 4) once a critical mass has been trained, support them to apply that lens to organizational changes that will support the front line folks in also being able to be trained and rewarded for engaging with customers differently. Of course, there is much more to all of this than what is mentioned here, but the general outline of work stands – be sure the organization is ready to commit to this work, assess them, train them as extensively as possible, begin the organizational change process, and then do that work for the next layer down and so on. If Starbucks had chosen the path of real organizational change, they would still be taking immediate action, but it would have a very different look and feel, and would be over the long haul. Most importantly, perhaps, they would spend a little less time in the headlines and more time committing to the actual work of racial equity within their organization.

Dr. Heather Hackman Speaks at the AASHE 2017 Closing Ceremony

(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2017

Produced by AASHE

2017 YWCA Racial Justice Summit – Keynote Presentations

 

(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2017

Produced by YWCA

Equity in Action: Heather Hackman’s BigBANG! 2016 Keynote

 

(c) Hackman Consulting Group, 2016

Produced by Social Venture Partners Dallas

Radio Interview: LGBT Health Care

On March 11, 2016, Dr. Stephen Nelson joined Ben Kieffer of Iowa Public Radio’s River to River for a 45-minute program on equity in health care, with a specific focus on LGBT healthcare. Click here for more information about the show.

Bananas, A Slippery Slope

Food Justice Travel Log

March, 2016

“How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”

So goes the Wendell Berry quote that often slaps me in the face when I travel internationally (rarely these days). I recently returned from a week on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. The road from San José to the port of Limón is practically ground zero for the banana monopoly created by the United Fruit Company in the late 19th century, finally morphing into Chiquita Brands International Incorporated in 1989. The history of the cultivated banana and how it became the world’s fourth major staple after rice, wheat and milk reads like a veritable soap opera; murder, suicide, labor strikes, bribery, corruption, violent coup d’état’s and an all-out banana war between the US and the European Union in the late 1990’s, making for a seemingly unbelievable story. Sadly, the same telenovela seems to constantly replay itself in the interest of vast profits for government-bought corporations and death and destruction for the earth and its’ indigenous and exploited masses.

Travels in other banana republics including Guatemala and Panama had already opened my eyes to the grand scale environmental destruction and human rights abuses multinational companies like United Fruit have wrought (and continue to wreak) on the planet, local indigenous populations, and food economies. While living with a Guatemalan family and studying Spanish in the small town of Flores, I was shocked to be drinking Nescafé instant coffee (along with the babies) in a country with some of the best coffee in the world; alas it is unaffordable for the local population. In Puerto Rico a few years back I was eager for fresh fruit and vegetables after too much easily accessible fried foods. An innkeeper handed me an avocado imported from the Dominican Republic. More than 85% of what Puerto Ricans eat is imported, although they are currently working on their minimal agricultural sector to increase healthy food production. Puerto Ricans have staggering rates of diabetes at 1 in 10 of the population.

The road from San José to Limón (a four hour drive) is literally lined with banana plantations and shipping containers. Each bunch of bananas on each tree is covered in a blue plastic bag. My local hostess/friend, Molly, said these bags are full of chemicals to protect them from disease and pests. Once you get to the port of Limón, ships loaded with refrigerated bananas are constantly departing to their various destinations around the world. I contemplated this one morning as I sipped local coffee and ate a local banana (a rare occurrence as I live in temperate Maryland) purchased from an organic farmer at the farmer’s market in Puerto Viejo. This banana was small, bruised and insanely sweet and delicious (I have to admit bananas are not at the top of my list when it comes to fruit choice.) Similarly I despised carrots for much of my life until a farming friend presented one to me fresh from the earth; again, sweet deliciousness, like no carrot I’d ever eaten before.

The morning before this contemplation over a sweet and beat up banana, I had snorkeled out to the coral reef with this warning from Molly, “our reef is in recovery from the destruction from the banana plantations, so don’t think it sucks.” Indeed, it was some of the saddest looking reef I’ve ever seen; I didn’t see even one fish. Deforestation and chemical runoff from the plantations have caused great damage, but the country is putting restrictions in place to help restoration efforts. Fortunately Costa Rica does not seem to be experiencing murders of its’ environmental activists, like other countries in Central America, Brazil, Africa and beyond; most recently the murder of award-winning indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres in Honduras, who had been organizing against a hydroelectric dam construction supported by multinational corporations as well as the Honduran and US governments. “By no means is the problem getting better,” said Billy Kyte, senior campaigner at Global Witness, an organization that has been tracking deaths of activists, whom the nonprofit calls environmental defenders. He noted the issue seems to be a growing problem, particularly in America as indigenous lands are encroached upon. “The increase in demand of natural resources is fueling ever more violence.”

By contrast, since demilitarizing in 1948 (and using those funds instead for security, education and culture!), Costa Rica has become one of the more “safe” and “stable” countries in Central America, attracting loads of US investment and ex-pats. I put the words “safe” and “stable” in quotes because I feel many privileged US-ers have skewed notions of comfort and safety and thus choose to visit the Global South from the perceived safety of a cruise or a resort rather than interact with local populations. I had always heard that Costa Rica was on the cutting edge of sustainability and from my travels in other less Americanized, less expensive Central American countries, I know there is a fine line between sustainability and poverty. Many folks are forced to be sustainable because they lack resources and fossil fuel based energy sources to be anything but. Costa Rica does have high rankings internationally for its’ sustainability efforts but also a 23% poverty rate. It is the Global North that extracts Earth’s resources and exploits the Global South’s land and labor so that no market or desire is left unrealized. The low-income people of color of the Global South are the innocent bystanders of globalization and neo-liberal policies like NAFTA and US-backed “aid” who will continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change, food shortages, fluctuations in cost of food and energy commodities, and destruction of both the environment and indigenous sovereignty. Indeed there are many agricultural demonstration projects, education centers and non-profits doing their thing, but there is much more governments can do, not to mention entities like the World Trade Organization, to protect local land and people.

I witnessed a small slice of some great work being done in Costa Rica at Centro Ashé in Manzanillo on the south Caribbean. Director, Molly Meehan Brown, works with the local population to promote their work around ethnobotony, medicinal herbal education and application, healthy cooking, and ecotourism, putting tourist dollars in the pockets of local and indigenous people. With centers in both Southern Maryland and Costa Rica, Centro Ashé is rooted in community and dedicated to keeping classes affordable & accessible in order to keep the knowledge of food, herbal medicine, seeds, and healing traditions alive and vital. Centro Ashé programs act as catalysts to build community, land-based and traditional knowledge. They celebrate the richness and diversity of folk herbalism across cultures while providing supportive and practical knowledge. Their teachers are all local herbalists, farmers, and plant people. I had the opportunity to sit in on a plant talk with a local Afro-Caribbean medicine woman and visiting Plant and Healers International who connect people, plants and healers around the world (I’m excited to start their online botany class, a donation-based course within my price range in a time when so many courses I’d like to take are simply out of my price range.) It was cool to watch the group bouncing ideas off each other, learning different names for the same plants, critically analyzing western ideas about the safety of plant use, identifying an unfamiliar edible fruit tree in the middle of town (Screw Pine!) and building international and local place-based resilience. We have the skills, resources and creativity to make our shared lives truly amazing, diverse (both bio and beautifully human), just, healthy and delicious.

Upon our return we went to retrieve my car at the house it was parked at. On the kitchen counter was a bunch of bananas with a Chiquita sticker that read, “Costa Rica.” My partner and I looked dubiously at each other. As consumers we can choose to support equal exchange organic farmers, when it is available. We make sacrifices in our fixed income life so that we can feel good about what we put into our bodies. We don’t always get it right, but if feels right to try, for our health, the planet’s health, workers’ health, and because we know our choices aren’t just personal choices; they affect others. What incredible collective power we DO have to shape the way the world is used by making the choices and changes needed to create a more just and environmentally friendly food system with a heavy local flavor! A delicious revolution indeed.

The Public Face of the White Corporatocracy

While much has been made of Donald Trump’s bombastic style, his highly offensive commentary toward just about every identifiable group (strangely, sometimes even his own), and his irreverence for any type of “protocol” other than the one he happens to be proffering that day, I have been considering a slightly different aspect of his rise (and recent wins in state primaries). Since our nation’s inception, the corporate elites have been the shadow figures with respect to U.S. government, funding candidates and influencing policy via their economic power (e.g the Koch brothers today). Now however, via Trump’s candidacy, the White corporatocracy has brazenly stepped into the limelight. I was struck most by a sound bite of his I heard from South Carolina the day after he won New Hampshire where he was openly talking about his personal love of money and his unabashed greed, and that that is what has made him a success (hello Gordon Gecko). Apparently he has had his Scrooge awakening and now wants to turn all this into a means of serving this country – “I’m greedy. I love money. Now I want to be greedy for America.” Rather than be appalled, the folks at his rally stood and cheered.

Astonishing. Not because it’s the first time this has ever been said, (the White, imperial corporatocracy has been doing this all along) but rather for its public face. I wonder if this means that the corporatocracy has so much control as a result of Citizens United that they no longer think they need to pretend they are not running this country? Or, has the fact that they were bailed out with no repercussions after the 2008 crash while so many millions of Americans suffered made them feel invincible? Not sure, but something has changed such that the leaders and denizens of the White corporatocracy feel that they can unreservedly come out into the light. At one point several weeks ago Bloomberg said he would rush in and “save” us from the threat of Trump if it seemed he was winning. Again, astonishing – one corporate conglomerate is seemingly going to save us from another. Yes, a clash of the corporate titans has left the shadows and emerged as the WWF of politics right out in the open.

But my focus in this piece is not about Trump or Bloomberg. They have taken up too much ink, air and space already. I am more interested in and concerned about what Trump’s rise says about us. It’s less about the titans and far more about what this political moment reveals about the racial and economic underbelly of this country. More specifically, I’ve noticed four things.

“I’m rich…really rich”

When I was in my teens the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” was a hit because it let the rest of us peek into the lives of the very rich and fantasize about being them some day. The presentation of the show was not merely a “reporting out” but was always tinted with the theme of aspiration. In Robin Leach’s droll British accent I heard high praise after high praise for the various class markers that indicated not only affluence, but also one’s importance to our society. Horatio Alger was indeed alive and well in the mythic notion that we all can rise to this elite status if we are smart, work hard, and dream big. And I think Trump holds this strange promise to many poor and working class Whites around this country. They have been screwed, no doubt about it, but not by “the government” and its taxes and legislative spending. They have been dismissed and their value as workers in this country has been deeply diminished, but not by those on Pennsylvania Avenue. No, the unions that have for so long protected poor and working class people, the social benefits that have served as nets to catch the most economically vulnerable, and the very jobs that so many poor and working class folks have worked over the years have been decimated and destroyed by the 1%, either directly or by their political proxies. Either way, it was the prompting of the 1% that led to the tax changes in the Reagan era and the decimation of welfare in the Clinton era. And yet, the myth of meritocracy and the belief in one’s “bootstraps”, ideas deeply steeped in the lies of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism and then wrapped up in the conflation of democracy and capitalism, seem to obfuscate the reality that the 1% has never, ever in the history of this society been a friend of the working class. Poor and working class Whites seem to be voting for Trump because they think he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, forgetting of course that he started in a place they will likely never, ever reach in their lifetime, and then stepped on countless others as he climbed. I’m not singling him out as some sort of pariah, that’s simply how this current economic system works for folks like him.

And so the promise of wealth, of one’s rise, of some measure of comfort and safety brought about by hard work in an economic system that is completely and utterly rigged still holds sway for these poor and working class Whites, and in the process the fiction of the “American Dream” as being open to everyone persists, despite the fact that it is still really just open to White, middle-class men. Thus, the public face of the corporatocracy and of Trump’s success as a Republican candidate tells us that 8 years after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the economic and racial myths of this country are greater than its reality. The desperation wrapped up in this is powerful and painful to watch, as is the inevitable devastation that will come to those White, working class folks when Trump destroys their access to health care, sells off their pubic lands for private development, lets the corporate sector take over even more of their “public” schools, continues the decimation of their unions, and further solidifies the barriers between the elites and the lives of these everyday folks.

“Make America Great Again”

Can you hear the strains of nostalgia as we start to harken back to the “good old days”? I can. In no uncertain terms this campaign slogan is about some very disconcerting racial dynamics and spells deep trouble for People of Color, Native peoples and White people working for racial justice. First, that language when coming from White folks with conservative leanings has always meant a reestablishment of the racial hierarchy in this country. Since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, we have seen the public vitriol toward People of Color and Native peoples increase exponentially. Far from being some sort of post-racial utopia, President Obama’s two terms have signaled a deep and palpable panic on the part of the White establishment regarding their “rightful” place in the world. This is demonstrated most sharply by the KKK controversy with respect to Trump. His desire to return to times of “America’s greatness” is contingent upon the second class citizenry of People of Color and Native peoples such that White folks can have easier access to resources, opportunities, and economic, social and political safety. A perfect puppet of Reagan’s promises of a shining city on the hill (just before he waged “war on drugs” aka war on Black and Brown men), but with the gloves off.

Second, this language has also always signaled an increase in the use of violence to enforce that racialized social order. As such, I think we can expect under Mr. Trump greater support for policing tactics that have inflamed racial tensions across the country, a greater acceptance of torture tactics for those deemed enemies of the state, and a rolling back of any institutional policies that seek to rectify this nation’s four centuries of racial oppression. The dismantling of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act will be nothing in comparison to what Mr. Trump, and more likely his appointees, will proffer in hopes of creating an America that looks decidedly Whiter in all the halls of power. Thus, we can see that the very notion of making this nation great again is contingent on the maintenance of the deeply racist and profoundly exploitative racialized policies of this nation’s history. As Trump calls upon his followers to remember what this nation used to be like, we who believe in racial justice must call out the deeply rooted racial oppression that those historic and current realities are based on. Far from making this nation great, our long-standing racist history has been a blight and ultimately will serve as one of the sources of the end of this great society, not its salvation.

“I want to be greedy for America”

In conjunction with the heightened centering of a White dominant hierarchy, Trump’s desire to be greedy for America also signals a period of U.S. imperialism and unilateral militarism abroad. Trump’s initial inflammatory comments about Mexicans coming into the U.S. were a harbinger of his overall ideology of U.S. entitlement. He is one step beyond the Bush doctrine (if there’s a 1% threat) and feels that there doesn’t even need to be a physical threat to take action against another nation, there simply needs to be an economic or political opportunity for the U.S., and that is sufficient grounds for a hostile takeover. Thus those who favor militaristic approaches over diplomacy of any kind will favor his bomb first and ask questions later approach. In the 2008 election John McCain made a problematic “joke” where he conflated the song “Barbara Ann” with the bombing of Iran. It was largely panned in the media but also created a bit of a distance with Republican voters. Now, 8 years later, throngs of White folks do not seem to mind Trump’s assertion of empire via military and economic imperialism. Again, as above, when fear drives a young nation such as ours, a nation with a lot of firepower, it can be a very dangerous equation for the rest of the world. Those who thought George W. Bush’s notions of U.S. unilateralism were extreme have not seen anything until Trump gets elected and ushers in an era of uber-neo-colonial foreign policy rooted in racist reactivity to what he deems (as do his followers) as a “weak” Obama and a tepid U.S. foreign policy. In particular, economically, politically and militarily vulnerable nations (often nations that have high numbers of poor folks or People of Color who have been run roughshod over due to Western colonialism) will be no obstacle to Trump if his administration deems them desirable to the United States’ interests. Again, this is not new in terms of U.S. foreign policy, what is new is the brazen way in which it is publicly stated and in which the White corporatocracy feels immune to its contestation. In a moment where the planet needs to come closer together to address global climate change, massive refugee issues, deep and heavily interconnected economic issues, and the threat of violence in a range of manifestations, it is striking that the Teddy-Roosevelt-on-steroids notion of “carry a big stick” appeals to the followers of Trump. In exactly the moment when we need to act like one among many, Trump’s message says “isolate and dominate.”

I’m a fighter

While I do not know if Trump has uttered these exact words, he certainly packages himself as a fighter for those who have been mistreated by our government, by other nations, by “terrorists”, and by “special interests” who are bringing America down. I was talking to my colleague, Marie, about this the other night and she noted how powerful that “fight” response is in terms of Trump’s words and actions and how it seems to resonate so deeply with folks who see themselves as having reason to fight. Through the combined lenses of racial justice and somatic experiencing, the response of the collective nervous system of Whiteness in this society could actually be an indicator that things are truly changing for us, albeit on some slow, tectonic level. After all, a fight response is not usually brought forth unless there is some powerful threat. In Marie’s words, brown folks are increasingly “here” and demanding change, change which threatens four centuries of White hegemony and power. It is possible, therefore, to see Trump’s rise as an indicator that the White power structure is not only being threatened as stated above, but that it perceives its entire life as coming to an end, perhaps because it is? Maybe the rise of Trump is the beginning of the end of the legacy of Whiteness? It seems less likely that it also signals the end of the corporatocracy, but it might mean that now that it is out in the light a bit more, it is more vulnerable. Before we celebrate, however, remember that when White people (and especially White rich people) get deeply scared good things rarely happen, which is perhaps one way to understand the blatant racism and violence that Trump’s followers often attach to his campaign, his message, and what they imagine his presidency to be. Nevertheless, if I understand the possible indicators of Trump’s rise and appeal, it can serve as a motivation to dig even deeper into the fight for racial and economic justice because we are, in fact, winning this long struggle.

Conclusion

Sadly, while I hear and see plenty of coverage of Donald Trump, I do not hear much in the way of conversation about the mirror Trump is holding up for us as a nation. Liberals (and progressives?) mock him on SNL, Colbert and Conan and yet at the same time we keep grabbing the popcorn and pulling up a chair to watch him and those who follow him. In true White liberal fashion we disparage those at his rallies and suggest that they are not as intelligent, or we simply dismiss them because they are “angry White people” (as if somehow dismissal has ever disarmed and disabused White people of their destructive capacity and power). But, what we are not doing is noticing that the Trump phenomenon is saying something critically important about us as a nation. One could say it is our last gasp as a young, immature, and power-hungry nation who is used to getting its way; or, that it is the final stand of the historic and current regime of conflated class, race and gender dynamics. This is an optimistic view, and one I would sign up for, if I saw that there were numbers, voices and wisdom back of them. Instead, what I see more of is the kind of twin reaction of disbelief that he made it this far and elitist cynicism that Trump will never make it to the presidency and so why worry. This, to me, seems like a substantial misunderstanding of what the private face of the White corporatocracy coming into the public eye actually means. For our sake, and for this nation’s sake, I hope that those of us who care about social justice take a much deeper look, enact a stronger stand, and launch a more vocal and relentless response to Trump and more importantly to his followers lest we find ourselves turning back the clock and wondering how we got here.

“That’s the Flight Attendant!”

So, I was flying home this past week and noticed that the flight attendant working my section of the plane looked familiar. I had been moved to a seat at the front of the plane and so she had just a dozen of us to tend to which meant I saw a lot of her. I also heard a lot from her once she got to talking with a White man in his late 50’s (a doctor) seated in the row in front of me. As they chatted I heard her first make a critical comment about the Affordable Care Act (“I would never be a doctor today given what Obamacare has done to our health system”), and then I heard her say that she is very involved in politics and would like Ted Cruz to win but if Trump gets the nomination she’ll vote for him because of his immigration stance.

Mind you, I was sitting there working on an upcoming race, racism and whiteness training and so this did not jive well with the mind-space I was in. Immediately I started judging her and her politics and could feel the gravitational pull of my own politics want to say something. I did not speak up, but if I’m honest I did shoot a half-hearted glare in her direction as she continued her very loud political commentary. I also heard her say that she has been working at the airline for 36 years and has so much seniority that she flies internationally for only a handful of months out of the year and then takes long periods of time “off”. This exacerbated my frustration (and judgement) because the reason she can do that is completely based on the fact that she is in a union. If there were no union supporting her, the airline would have fired her long ago in favor of newer workers with less seniority whom they could pay less. And yet, given her politics, I imagine she hates her union for its “lefty, liberal-ness”.

Her politics are not the reason for this reflection. Those ideas are a dime a dozen these days. What I want to focus on is my reaction. The more she talked, the more disturbed I became inside. After about 10 minutes I finally noticed the tumult of my internal landscape and paused to take some slow, deep breaths while I said something to the effect of “the love in me sees the love in you”, a phrase I heard a colleague say a few days prior, so it was in my head. I wanted to feel compassion for her. I wanted to be okay with her, despite how starkly divergent her views are from mine, and how dangerous I find them to be. I wanted to be able to meet her energetically with calmness, generosity, and a love for her as a person while still strongly disagreeing with her. I wanted all of that because it is wildly hypocritical of me to advocate for social justice but then only extend the core characteristics of it to those who agree with me. There can be no peace when kindness and care are selectively allocated, and in this case, when my self-righteous view of the world is used to determine how I afford various folks their humanity (or not). I was in a workshop two years ago (as a participant) and the topic was the importance of compassion in our social justice work, and one woman said, “I just can’t and won’t do it, and I don’t think I have to”. On one level I got where she was coming from – various forms of oppression have been dogging her throughout her entire life and so to extend compassion in moments connected to them was a heavy lift. But on another level, I felt myself wonder how we can afford to not be compassionate? The delusion, it seems, is that we actually have a choice in the matter.

Thus I wanted to ground into kindness and compassion toward her, and at one point was able to actually manifest some of it…that is, until I remembered that she was the flight attendant I got into a verbal altercation with on a flight in late September of 2014. I was flying home from the New York City climate march with my friend Karen and this flight attendant started bashing the march, loudly proclaiming to two other passengers that there is no such thing as climate change because she has read the research and it doesn’t exist (she explains the warming by the “natural solar cycle theory”…a theory that has been thoroughly debunked), and that those people in NYC are just losers, trouble makers and “idiots”. Yep, I lost it. I thought for sure that I was going to get put on the no fly list, but I didn’t care because that was an absurd thing to say. Thankfully it was a short interaction because we were arguing as the plane was starting to land. I was fuming as we disembarked but didn’t say anything else to her.

And here she was again, right in front of me, talking to the doctor for over 25 minutes or so about the Republican party, health care, how much they hate President Obama, foreign policy (those Syrians are wrecking their country), and the like. Though I was now even more triggered, the grounding in paved the way for no verbal altercations, no raising my voice, and not even the passive-aggressive shaking of my head and judgmental chuckling that I unfortunately do sometimes to show disagreement. I just returned to my mantra with a little more zeal – “the love in me sees the love in you”. I had to because I genuinely wanted to be different with this woman this time around. There is always a choice in moments like these and to be honest I choose to “react” more than I care to admit. Driven largely by my fear that we will not change in time and a heavy sadness I sometimes feel about how we treat each other, I often jump too quickly into the mix. Stepping out and strongly speaking up is not wrong of course, but when it is driven by fear, sadness and self-righteousness the result is usually the spreading of more the same. And so I wanted to meet her from a wiser and more grounded space knowing that it would not change her politics nor make her even stop talking so loudly, but it would change me, and that was what I was going for. If I cannot express love and care and a desire to hold those I so strongly disagree with in positive regard, I am not really that much different than the afraid and angry folks at those Trump rallies. Sure there are stark differences on the surface, but under it all, I’m coming from the same place.

Espousing peace and social justice needs to be a more deeply lived experience for me and this was a chance to try and meet this flight attendant with compassion, extend grace to her just as surely as doing so extends it to myself, and see what the power of love can really do in moments that feel intractable. The result was that I genuinely and with an honest curiosity began to wonder where her beliefs stemmed from and what kind of safety they gave her. I was reading some Marshall Rosenberg just before this flight and I started to wonder what needs her beliefs were meeting and if there was a way that I could join her in that space while not having to sow hate and fear. Said differently, is there a way I can help her feel deeply “okay” while simultaneously questioning her specious claims rooted in ideologies that are historically and currently connected to systems of oppression?

I’ll end this blog with that question – one that seems to resonate in all moments of addressing these issues. I’m not talking about pacifism; I’m talking about not reproducing the violence that has led us to so many painful places individually and collectively, and instead trying to find some grace and wisdom born out of our collective desire for safety and peace. Too often I hear social justice advocates reduce this conversation to either a) having a strong social justice critique and seeing compassion as “too soft”, or b) being rooted in compassion but letting go of some of the strength and clarity of a critique. I believe that the challenges of our time as they relate to social justice require a deep understanding of both – a fierce social justice lens and the capacity to never lose sight of the humanity of those we’re confronting. I don’t claim to have a handle on this, but I did want to share this moment with “that” flight attendant where I was able to catch a glimpse of it and its efficacy in this work. And as this election year ramps up I have a feeling the ever-louder levels of vitriol and attack will give me lots of chances to practice this process. Despite the tendency to try and justify it, human history has repeatedly shown that we cannot effectively fight violence with violence. That does not mean we sit back and let oppression happen. There is a third option of addressing violence and moving through moments of great conflict, and it is through the lens of kindness, compassion, fierce commitment to justice, and love. Not easy, but necessary. The delusion, again, is that we think we have a choice.

 

 

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