Monday, April 28, 2008
Speaking at a 2008 Los Angeles conference entitled: Motivating African and Latino Boys to Excel in the Classroom and Beyond
Baruti Kafele is principal of Newark Tech Hi School in Newark, NJ. He has turned this school-as-preprison into a center of Black & Latino educational excellence. His website is: <http://www.principalkafele.com> where you can get more info and purchase his very useful books.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
This is a clip from The Pathology of Privilege: Racism, White Denial & the Costs of Inequality, the newly released video from the Media Education Foundation. The video is of a speech given by Tim Wise at Mt. Holyoke College, October 1, 2007
By Tim Wise
April 2, 2008
Not long ago, after I had written an article in which I discussed white denial--the tendency for most white folks to reject the notion that racism is still a significant obstacle for people of color in the U.S.--I received an e-mail from a white man who insisted that my argument was itself racist. His reason? According to his message, simply by stating that most white folks remain in denial about the extent of racism and discrimination against people of color, I had engaged in anti-white bigotry, since I had made a generalization about a racial group: in this case, the one that both he and I share.
He went on to offer an analogy that he felt proved my argument to be racist. "What if I were to write an article where I said 'most black people are criminals'?" he asked. "Wouldn't that be racist against blacks?" In other words, he argued, to make any comments about racial groups is inherently racist, and so my saying that most whites were in denial was every bit as bad as saying that most blacks are criminals.
Of course, and as I explained to him at the time, such an argument makes no sense at all. The reason it is racist to say that "most blacks are criminals," is because such a position is based on racial stereotypes rather than factual information: it casts aspersions upon an entire group of people, based not on truth, but on the basis of ignorant prejudice. Most blacks are not criminals; indeed, the vast majority are not. There are about 28 million African Americans over the age of 12 in the U.S. (and thus eligible for inclusion in crime data), and only a small number of these (fewer than five percent) will commit a crime in a given year. So while it would not be racist to note that black folks have a higher official crime rate than whites--this is a fact borne out by evidence, and which doesn't necessarily cast a characterological judgment upon those it mentions--saying that most blacks are criminals is simply a lie, and to the extent it casts aspersions upon a racial group that can lead to their continued stereotyping, a racist lie at that.
To say that "most white folks are in denial" is not racist, because such a belief is not based on stereotypes about whites; rather, the claim is supported by what white folks actually say when asked if we believe racism to be a significant problem: the vast majority, in poll after poll answer that it is not, irrespective of the evidence to the contrary. And we have long believed that, so even in the early 1960s, at a time when in retrospect all would agree the nation was profoundly unequal in its treatment of people of color, whites told pollsters in overwhelming numbers (anywhere from sixty-five to nearly ninety percent) that blacks had equal opportunities in employment and education. White denial has been a hallmark of the nation's racial history. Saying that is not racist, it is an incontrovertible fact.
Apparently, and if recent events are any indication, the difference between mentioning a group tendency, on the one hand, and casting aspersions upon the group in question, on the other, is something lots of folks can't quite grasp. So, consider the uproar among many white Americans when presidential candidate, Barack Obama stated recently that his grandmother had been a "typical white person," in that she would often have a negative reaction when encountering someone of a different race. The comment, made during a radio program the day after Obama's now-famous speech on race from Philadelphia, was taken by an awful lot of whites as a racist assault, a blatantly prejudicial example of anti-white bigotry on the part of the U.S. Senator. To many whites, still in a lather over the comments made by Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, the "typical white person" remark was only further confirmation that Obama is racist against white people. The story dominated talk radio for days, as well as letters to the editor of local and national papers, and I received hundreds of e-mails from folks demanding to know when I was going to speak out against Obama's "defamation" of white people.
Interestingly, outrage over Obama's remarks has manifested, despite how easy it is to confirm the utter accuracy of his comment--accuracy which itself disproves the notion that the statement about "typical" white people was racist. The fact is, if by "typical" one means the norm, the average (and what else, after all, could be meant by it?), then whites indeed, by our own admission, hold any number of negative, prejudiced, and ultimately racist beliefs about black people. Evidence of this basic truth can be gleaned from any number of sources: opinion surveys, psychological tests like the Implicit Association Test, and several experiments that one can do (and I have done) time and again with white audiences, all with the same result: namely, confirmation that the "typical" white person (and I include myself in that by the way) does harbor internalized notions of white racial superiority or "betterness," vis-a-vis African Americans.
Looking first at public opinion surveys just over the past fifteen years or so, roughly six in ten whites, by our own admission, adhere to at least one negative racial stereotype about blacks. According to a National Opinion Research Center survey in the early '90s, over sixty percent of whites believe that blacks are generally lazier than other groups, fifty-six percent say that blacks are generally more prone to violence, and over half say that blacks are generally less intelligent than other groups (1). What makes these beliefs racist is that by assuming that blacks are more "prone" to violence and "less intelligent," respondents are not merely signaling that blacks have higher crime rates, or score lower on various indicia of academic achievement--both of which are true, for reasons owing to the opportunity structure and the location of black communities relative to that structure--but instead are making assumptions about the inherent abilities and characters of black people.
A similar survey from 1993, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, found that three in four whites accept as true at least one racist stereotype about African Americans, regarding such items as general laziness, propensity to criminality and violence, intelligence, or work ethic. And according to a 2001 survey, sixty percent of whites, approximately, admit that they believe at least one negative and racist stereotype of blacks: for example, that they are generally lazy, generally aggressive or violent, or prefer to live on welfare rather than work for a living (2). In fact, the belief in black preference for welfare over work is typically the most commonly believed of the stereotypes; this, despite the fact that only a very small percentage of African Americans--and for that matter, a minority of even poor African Americans--receive benefits from programs typically considered "welfare."
Interestingly, whites often deny the importance of racism in determining the life chances of blacks, even as they give voice to beliefs that are themselves evidence of the very racial prejudice they deny. So, for instance, in one of the more respected opinion surveys from the 1990s, six in ten whites said that discrimination was less important in determining the position of blacks in society, than the "fact" that blacks "just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty." But if most whites believe that blacks as a group are unmotivated or lazy, that is itself a racial generalization amounting to racism: ascribing a negative characterological trait to blacks as a group. Of course the irony should be apparent to all: on the one hand, whites are saying that blacks are lazy, but on the other they insist that racism--including the kind that holds African Americans in this low regard--would be of very little consequence to their ability to succeed; as if people imbued with that kind of bias would be able to fairly evaluate job applicants or students who were members of the presumed defective group!
Other studies stretching back nearly forty years have indicated a significant degree of white racial bias towards blacks, which we are almost always loath to acknowledge. But in one set of studies, when whites were told (falsely as it turns out) that they were hooked up to functioning lie detectors that would be able to ascertain if they were being dishonest when they claimed not to have any racist beliefs about blacks, they were far more likely to indicate biases up front. In other words, whites often deny our racial biases, even when those remain deeply ingrained. Research has suggested, for example, that many persons will feign a more liberal and non-prejudicial attitude than that to which they actually adhere, when asked questions about racial "others" on opinion surveys. Meaning that if roughly six in ten whites are willing to admit to serious anti-black prejudices of one form or another, the real percentages holding those beliefs are likely quite a bit larger.
Implicit Association Tests are even more decisive as to the extent of internalized and often subconscious, but nonetheless real, white racism. These tests, which measure response time to visual stimuli--specifically testing how quickly respondents associate briefly shown images of blacks or whites with either positive or negative words that are also briefly flashed on a screen--suggest that the typical white person does indeed harbor racial biases against African Americans. According to the research:
"...when given a test of unconscious stereotyping, nearly ninety percent of whites who have taken the test implicitly associate the faces of black Americans with negative words and traits such as evil character or failure. That is, they have more trouble linking black faces to pleasant words and positive features than they do for white faces. Most whites show an antiblack, pro-white bias on psychological tests. In addition, when whites are shown photos of black faces, even for only thirty milliseconds, key areas of their brains that are designed to respond to perceived threats light up automatically." (3)
In my own work I have often conducted word association exercises, in which I ask participants to honestly tell me the first thing that pops in their heads when they hear certain words. Although there is no way to verify their answers, since I am relying on them to be honest, even in this non-controlled environment, in which participants could easily lie in order to seem less racist than they are in practice, the answers are quite revealing. When asked to envision a criminal, a person buying groceries with food stamps (or an electronic benefits card), a drug dealer or user, or a pregnant teenager, almost all white participants (and even large numbers of participants of color) respond that their first image was that of someone who was black or Latino/a. This, despite the fact that over half of all crime is committed by non-Hispanic whites, most people using food stamps are white, more than seven in ten drug users are white (as are most dealers), and most pregnant teens are white as well. Although people of color have higher rates of crime, or welfare receipt, or teen pregnancies, it is simply false that the typical representative of any of these groups is black or brown. Thus, for people to think of a person of color when those words are mentioned is to acknowledge implicit biases, rooted in the conditioning that comes from numerous sources, media first and foremost among them.
On the other hand, if I ask people to envision an "all-American boy or girl," or even worse, God, they invariably admit to envisioning white images (in the latter case, even those who admit to being atheists, because of the symbolic conditioning to which they have been subjected). Confirming my own experiments, researchers who have asked white focus group members to envision a "typical drug user," report that upwards of 95 percent of whites report envisioning a black person, despite the fact that blacks only represent thirteen percent of all drug users, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, while whites comprise approximately 70 percent of all drug users (4).
Of course, none of this should be interpreted to imply that whites are inherently racist, as if because of something intrinsic to our culture or biology. White bias against black folks is the direct result of environmental conditioning: media images that over-represent blacks as criminals relative to the share of crime that they commit, and images that, at least since the early '70s, have overrepresented blacks as members of the welfare-dependent "underclass," relative to the percentages of the long-term poor who are actually black. If one is subjected repeatedly to images of God, or all-American kids that are white, it ought not surprise anyone that such images would become ingrained in the minds of white folks, and many folks of color as well. Likewise, if one is repeatedly subjected to negative imagery of blacks--imagery that represents them as pathological and culturally defective--how shocking should it be that such images would influence the way in which whites come to view African Americans and their communities?
This is why it was ultimately so easy for whites to believe the stories coming out of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which suggested that black folks were raping and killing people en masse in the Superdome and Convention Center. These reports, all of which turned out to be false, and which were exposed as false by the media about a month after the city flooded (retractions that many Americans never heard, it should be noted), were never questioned at the time they were being reported by any mainstream media outlet. Looking at the comment boards on Nola.com during the tragedy--the main website for the city's newspaper and media outlets--one could find hundreds of racist comments from whites who had bought the claims of black depravity, and were advocating machine-gunning those responsible, and letting the masses who were stuck downtown starve to death, because they were "animals" who didn't "deserve to be saved."
Needless to say, were a hurricane to take out Nantucket, or destroy the summer homes of the white and wealthy who vacation on Cape Cod, and were the media to broadcast rumors to the effect that rich white folks were raping and killing people in the local Episcopal church, no one would believe the reports without evidence, without bodies, without proof. But because of racism, you can say anything you like about black people, especially when they're poor, and others will believe it, every word of it, without question.
So until white folks can demonstrate that we have transcended our racist conditioning, and until we no longer confirm our anti-black biases in test after test, and survey after survey, our defensiveness (indeed, outright anger) at the comments of Barack Obama, makes me wonder if we may be protesting just a bit too much, and giving away our hand in the process. To the extent there are some white folks who don't envision a black person when they hear the term "drug user," or who don't see a white man when they hear the term "God," or who don't automatically think of an Arab Muslim when the term terrorist gets thrown around (because after all, there have been hundreds of terrorist bombings and arsons at abortion clinics by white Christians in the U.S. in the last two decades, not to mention the Unabomber, the Olympic Park Bomber, or Tim McVeigh), then so be it. But such persons shouldn't get defensive on behalf of the majority of our white brothers and sisters who still think exactly those things: rather, they should be challenging them, and encouraging them to break out of the racist box into which years of conditioning have placed us--all of us, to at least some extent.
Our anger should be aimed at those who, by virtue of their racism, implicate us all in the sickness, rather than at those who merely point out that we indeed, are still carrying the virus.
(1) Tom W. Smith, "Ethnic Images," GSS Technical Report No. 19, Chicago: NORC, January 1991
(2) Lawrence Bobo, "Inequalities That Endure? Racial Ideology, American Politics, and the Peculiar Role of the Social Sciences," in Maria Krysan and Amanda Lewis, eds. The Changing Terrain of Race and Ethnicity. Russell Sage Foundation: 2004: 19-20
(3) Joe Feagin, Systemic Racism. NY: Routledge, 2006: 26
(4) B.W. Burston, D. Jones, and P. Robertson-Saunders, "Drug use and African-Americans: Myth versus reality." Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. 40(2), 1995:19-39.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
(for more info: www.radicalmath.org)
About the "Creating Balance" Conference
From April 4 - 6, over 400 educators, parents, students, activists, and community members from around the country participated in the second Creating Balance in an Unjust World conference on math education and social justice. Held at Long Island University's Downtown Brooklyn campus, participants from 26 states and 3 countries attended:
- 36 different workshops, 13 of which were facilitated by young people
- a panel discussion on community organizing and math education
- Keynote speeches from Joan Countryman and Monty Neill
- a lunchtime networking session
- Action Groups on topics including fighting high-stakes testing, organizing social-justice-themed schools, and working with pre-service teachers
- school visits at 9 NYC public schools
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
...A good article, a kind of primer of the "racial" (not to say Black) art scene. There is a very interesting point that continues to surface in the article -- and in the real world.
The more we talk about erasing, or ignoring "race' as a relevant category, the more it becomes a factor in our lives. On the other hand, the more of a big deal we make of it, the more it becomes clear that it doesn't deserve all that importance. Even the art that sets out to explore/exploit this contradiction gets caught up in it.
This has been with us for a long time, even when it was not being intended or consciously thought about. I have often thought about how Duke Ellington, whose highest compliment for anything was that it was "beyond category" and who saw himself as a producer of a kind of universal world music (which he was) actually became one of the most eloquent spokespersons (musically) for African American culture specifically. (His very artful piece on "Madame Zajj" even goes so far as to suggest that the Black music of North America stands in a special place, compared to that from other parts of the African World.)
Paul Robeson (whose birthday is tomorrow, 4/9), on the other hand, often portrayed himself as a voice of African America, being the son of a man who escaped from slavery and all, but turned out in reality to be the voice of the global working class, singing traditional songs from many cultures, ad singing in multiple languages. Ultimately, I guess it all comes down to what people in the Far East call yin and yang; everything exists because of its opposite. The only reason that there is a word for cold is that hot exists.
If there were no "evil," there would not even be a concept of "good." The more we tell someone close, "I love you," the more we raise the specter that the opposite also exists, the possibility of not loving. The things that have no opposites have no words, and therefore do not even exist in conscious thought. That is what meditation is all about (and why it figures so prominently in the far East): being aware of what REALLY exists beyond the limiting tyranny of words, by silencing the internal dialogue. This is also, by my calculation, what art is also all about (not only visual artifacts, but music -- notably "jazz," dance, etc.), reaching that inner and deeper truth that is universal to all humans, transcending cultural and language differences.
This is why African American Classical Music is so welcomed and understood in so many other places. Visual art has that capability also. (The influence of African art redefined European art, for example, which, in turn, under the influence of colonialism, reshaped the whole sense of art making globally: art as object/commodity for sale, for example, which, in ying-yang fashion, gave rise to the art-as-anti-commodity: conceptual and performance pieces that strive to break free of limitation but in so doing reinforce it by reminding us that it is there and it is powerful enough to spawn reactions and responses.)
Given this paradigm, it is easy to see how "race," a myth so powerful that it could turn an entire countr y into a cult around it, can be trap from which the artist makes stronger by striving to be free from it. (Remember those woven straw "Chinese handcuffs" from novelty shops and Cracker Jack boxes? The harder you tried to pull your fingers free, the tighter they got.) This is the stuff that has fueled the unspoken-yet-loud debate between "Black artists" and "Artists who happen to be Black," which was all about something called Consciousness (at least depending on who is speaking and from which side), and now this latest iteration called "Post-Black" which -- Life imitates Art -- has come to fruition in the Obama presidential candidacy, raising that eternal question of the next generation to be traveling down this long, long road: "Are we there yet?" Obviously not.
Tyne Daly, the white actress who is married to Georg Stanford Brown and played in the "Cagney & Lacey" TV series was asked in a radio interview if she thought the country had progressed to the point where her "interracial" marriage did not really matter any more. Her answer was as classic as it was swift: "If we had, you wouldn't be asking me that question! Obama's vision and message has a resonance in the nation that hasn't been heard since Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, but Dr. King's speech contained a metaphor which has yet to be addressed, when he said that America had written a check with its promise to be a land where "all men are created equal" but that check has been returned for "insufficient funds."
Yes, there is that thorny matter of Reparations for wrongs that have been done. I, for one, am among the first to say that we would be making a grave error (for which neither Ancestors nor future generations would forgive us) if we equated Reparations with "funds," i.e. money, or even more precisely debt, a "substance" controlled by Central Banks and used very effectively as a means of global population control, as everyone dealing with the World Bank and IMF can attest. But the inappropriateness of currency and finance, over whose value we, the offended party, have no control and by which we can actually be controlled, does not negate the validity of our claim. (In any case, there is not enough money on the planet anyway.) Something more like Restorative Justice needs to come into play. That is all another story (but not a separate story). It is a part of what needs to be done to get us back to the REAL story.
The real story, the true story, the deep story, the one that gets all hearts to beat in unison, the truth that is reached by "jazz" (AACM) and other real art forms, is the one that, by definition, recognizes all life as important, all babies as equally significant, all people as righteous heirs to the bounty of the earth, who are equally responsible not to be wasteful or disrespectful. Either we glorify that or we glorify disparity, and celebrate the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" watching multiple boob tubes in projects, prison cells, trailer parks and rural cabins without plumbing, gleefully showing off what bit of silly bling or overpriced sneakers we have been able to garner from the same sweat shop economy that will "come for us tomorrow."
The "Bankers' Manifesto" of 1898, for all we know, could be a contrived hoax, but even if it were, it is a dead-on accurate description of the way this country is being run, and by whom. The strategy of keeping the "common people" distracted with political issues that are of no consequence whatsoever, such as "race," has proven itself to be most effective. The fact that artists have bought into it adds to that effectiveness, but it is also a tribute to those artists that out of such madness they have been able to create, produce and perform real art, that succeeds in speaking to higher and deeper aspects of human existence as well. It does make one wonder, however, what greater things these artists might accomplish if they were actually, really "free within ourselves" (to use Langston Hughes' famous phrase in his own very insightful 1929 manifesto on this very question). So many of the artists of that Harlem Renaissance era had it so right. They so well understood that the essence and the beauty of being Black was being in possession of the wisdom that freed them (and us) from being essentialized as only Black in a world where the categories of "White" and "Black" existed for no other reason than to enforce, reinforce and perpetuate systematic disparity and inequality. (There was no reason to be "Separate" other than to be "UNequal.")
"Race," in the tradition of African (Black) wisdom could only mean the whole human race. Paul Robeson, in his own most famous quote (his epitaph, in fact, at Fernwood Cemetery), said it all: "The artist must elect to fight for slavery or for freedom. I have made my decision. I had no choice." I strive to live by that.
A luta continua,
The Topic Is Race; the Art Is Fearless
IN the 1970s the African-American artist Adrian Piper donned an Afro wig and a fake mustache and prowled the streets of various cities in the scowling, muttering guise of the Mythic Being, a performance-art version of a prevailing stereotype, the black male as a mugger, hustler, gangsta.
In the photographs that resulted you can see what she was up to. In an era when some politicians and much of the popular press seemed to be stoking racial fear, she was turning fear into farce � but serious, and disturbing, farce, intended to punch a hole in pervasive fictions while acknowledging their power.
Recently a new kind of Mythic Being arrived on the scene, the very opposite of the one Ms. Piper introduced some 30 years ago. He doesn�t mutter; he wears business suits; he smiles. He is by descent half black African, half white American. His name is Barack Obama.
On the rancorous subject of the country�s racial history he isn�t antagonistic; he speaks of reconciliation, of laying down arms, of moving on, of closure. He is presenting himself as a 21st-century postracial leader, with a vision of a color-blind, or color-embracing, world to come.
Campaigning politicians talk solutions; artists talk problems. Politics deals in goals and initiatives; art, or at least interesting art, in a language of doubt and nuance. This has always been true when the subject is race. And when it is, art is often ahead of the political news curve, and heading in a contrary direction.
In a recent solo debut at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea a young artist named Rashid Johnson created a fictional secret society of African-American intellectuals, a cross between Mensa and the Masons. At first uplift seemed to be the theme. The installation was framed by a sculpture resembling giant cross hairs. Or was it a microscope lens, or a telescope�s? The interpretive choice was yours. So was the decision to stay or run. Here was art beyond old hot-button statements, steering clear of easy condemnations and endorsements. But are artists like Mr. Johnson making �black� art? Political art? Identity art? There are no answers, or at least no unambiguous ones.
Since Ms. Piper�s Mythical Being went stalking in the 1970s � a time when black militants and blaxploitation movies reveled in racial difference � artists have steadily challenged prevailing constructs about race.
As multiculturalism entered mainstream institutions in the 1980s, the black conceptualist David Hammons stayed outdoors, selling snowballs on a downtown Manhattan sidewalk. And when, in the 1990s, Robert Colescott was selected as the first African-American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, he brought paintings of figures with mismatched racial features and skin tones, political parables hard to parse.
At the turn of the present millennium, with the art market bubbling up and the vogue for identity politics on the wane, William Pope.L � the self-described �friendliest black artist in America� � belly-crawled his way up Broadway, the Great White Way, in a Superman outfit, and ate copies of The Wall Street Journal.
Today, as Mr. Obama pitches the hugely attractive prospect of a postracial society, artists have, as usual, already been there, surveyed the terrain and sent back skeptical, though hope-tinged, reports. And you can read those reports in art all around New York this spring, in retrospective surveys like �Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution� currently at the P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in the up-to-the-minute sampler that is the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in gallery shows in Chelsea and beyond, and in the plethora of art fairs clinging like barnacles to the Armory Show on Pier 94 this weekend.
�Wack!� is a good place to trace a postracial impulse in art going back decades. Ms. Piper is one of the few African-American artists in the show, along with Howardena Pindell and Lorraine O�Grady. All three began their careers with abstract work, at one time the form of black art most acceptable to white institutions, but went on to address race aggressively.
In a 1980 performance video, �Free, White and 21,� Ms. Pindell wore whiteface to deliver a scathing rebuke of art-world racism. In the same year Ms. O�Grady introduced an alter ego named �Mlle Bourgeoise Noire� who, dressed in a beauty-queen gown sewn from white formal gloves, crashed museum openings to protest all-white shows. A few years later Ms. Piper, who is light skinned, began to selectively distribute a printed calling card at similar social events. It read:
I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are not black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.
I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.
Adrian Margaret Smith Piper
Although these artists� careers took dissimilar directions, in at least some of their work from the �70s and �80s they all approached race, whiteness as well as blackness, as a creative medium. Race is treated as a form of performance; an identity that could, within limits, be worn or put aside; and as a diagnostic tool to investigate social values and pathologies.
Ms. Piper�s take on race as a form of creative nonfiction has had a powerful influence on two generations of African-Americans who, like Mr. Obama, didn�t experience the civil rights movement firsthand, and who share a cosmopolitan attitude toward race. In 2001 that attitude found corner-turning expression in �Freestyle,� an exhibition organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem by its director, Thelma Golden.
When Ms. Golden and her friend the artist Glenn Ligon called the 28 young American artists �postblack,� it made news. It was a big moment. If she wasn�t the first to use the term, she was the first to apply it to a group of artists who, she wrote, were �adamant about not being labeled �black� artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.�
The work ranged from mural-size images of police helicopters painted with hair pomade by Kori Newkirk, who lives in Los Angeles, to computer-assisted geometric abstract painting by the New York artist Louis Cameron. Mr, Newkirk�s work came with specific if indirect ethnic references; Mr. Cameron�s did not. Although �black� in the Studio Museum context, they would lose their racial associations in an ethnically neutral institution like the Museum of Modern Art.
Ethnically neutral? That�s just a code-term for white, the no-color, the everything-color. For whiteness is as much � or as little � a racial category as blackness, though it is rarely acknowledged as such wherever it is the dominant, default ethnicity. Whiteness is yet another part of the postracial story. Like blackness, it has become a complicated subject for art. And few have explored it more forcefully and intimately than Nayland Blake.
Mr. Blake, 48, is the child of a black father and a white mother. In various performance pieces since the 1990s he has dressed up as a giant rabbit, partly as a reference to Br�er Rabbit of Joel Chandler Harris�s Uncle Remus stories, a wily animal who speaks in Southern black dialect and who survives capture by moving fast and against expectations.
In 2001 Mr. Blake appeared in a video with another artist, AA Bronson. Each had his face slathered with cake frosting, chocolate in Mr. Blake�s case, vanilla in Mr. Bronson�s. When then two men exchanged a long kiss, the colors, and presumably the flavors, began to blend. Shared love, the implication was, dissolves distinctions between �black� and �white,� which, as racial categories, are cosmetic, superficial.
As categories they are also explosive. In 1984, when Mr. Hammons painted a poster of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian and exhibited it outdoors in Washington, the piece was trashed by a group of African-American men. Mr, Hammons intended the portrait, �How Ya Like Me Now,� as a comment on the paltry white support for Mr. Jackson�s presidential bid that year. Those who attacked it assumed the image was intended as an insult to Mr. Jackson.
More recently, when Kara Walker cut out paper silhouettes of fantasy slave narratives, with characters � black and white alike � inflicting mutual violence, she attracted censure from some black artists. At least some of those objecting had personal roots in the civil rights years and an investment in art as a vehicle for racial pride, social protest and spiritual solace.
Ms. Walker, whose work skirts any such overt commitments, was accused of pandering to a white art market with an appetite for images of black abjection. She was called, in effect, a sellout to her race.
In a television interview a few weeks ago, before he formed plans to deliver his speech on race, Mr. Obama defended his practice of backing off from discussion of race in his campaign. He said it was no longer a useful subject in the national dialogue; we�re over it, or should be.
But in fact it can be extremely useful. There is no question that his public profile has been enhanced by his Philadelphia address, even if the political fallout in terms of votes has yet to be gauged.
Race can certainly be used to sell art too, and the results can be also be unpredictable. As with politics, timing is crucial.
In 1992 the white artist team Pruitt-Early (Rob Pruitt and Walter Early) presented a gallery exhibition called �The Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project.� Its theme was the marketing of African-American pop culture, with an installation of black-power posters, dashiki cloth and tapes of soul music bought in Harlem.
What might, at a later time or with different content, have been seen as a somewhat dated consumerist critique proved to be a public relations disaster. The artists were widely condemned as racist and all but disappeared from the art world.
Eight years later, with the cooling of identity politics, a show called �Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage� arrived, with no apparent critical component, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. An array of fashion images, videos and artifacts associated with stars like the Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott and Tupac Shakur, it was assumed to be a welcoming (if patronizing) gesture to the museum�s local African-American audience. Yet its appearance coincided with the general massive marketing of hip-hop culture to middle-class whites, a phenomenon that Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Early had been pointing to.
Were Pruitt-Early postblack artists ahead of their time, offering a new take on race, as a movable feast that collided with older, essentialist attitudes? If so, they would probably find plenty of company now in artists who stake out terrain both black and postblack, white and postwhite.
Mr. Pope.L (he who crawled up Broadway) does so with a posture of radical outsiderness that cancels bogus notions of racial or cultural essence. Basically he short-circuits the very concept of what an artist, black or white, �should� be. He smiles as he inches up the street on all fours; he uncomplainingly devours news of money he�ll never have. He paints murals with peanut butter and makes sculpture from Pop-Tarts, the stuff of welfare meals. In many ways his main subject would seem to be class, not race. Yet race is everywhere in his art.
He works with mostly white materials � mayonnaise, milk, flour � but he also runs the Black Factory, a mobile workshop-van equipped to transform any object, no matter what color, into a �black� object. How? By covering it with cheap black paint.
For a retrospective at the Maine College of Art in Portland in 2003, Mr. Pope.L presented a performance piece with the optimistic title �eRacism,� but that was entirely about race-based conflict. In a photograph in the show�s catalog, he has the word written in white on his bare black chest. Were he pale-skinned, it might have been all but invisible.
Whereas Mr. Pope.L has shaped himself into a distinctive racial presence, certain other artists of color are literally built from scratch. A Miami artists collective called BLCK, in the current Whitney Biennial, doesn�t really exist. The archival materials attributed to it documenting African American life in the 1960s is actually the creation of single artist: Adler Guerrier, who was born in Haiti in 1975.
Projects by Edgar Arceneaux, who is also in the biennial, have included imaginary visual jam sessions with the jazz visionary Sun Ra and the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt. Earlier in this art season, a white artist, Joe Scanlan, had a solo gallery show using the fictional persona of a black artist, Donelle Woolford. Ms. Woolford was awarded at least one appreciative review, suggesting that, in art at least, race can be independent of DNA.
The topic of race and blood has always been an inflammatory one in this country. Ms. Piper broached it in a 1988 video installation and delivered some bad news. Facing us through the camera, speaking with the soothing composure of a social worker or grief counselor, she said that, according to statistics, if we were white Americans, chances were very high that we carried at least some black blood. That was the legacy of slavery. She knew we would be upset. She was sorry. But was the truth. The piece was titled �Cornered.�
And are we upset? I�ll speak for myself; it�s not a question. Of course not. Which is a good thing, because the concept of race in America � the fraught fictions of whiteness and blackness� is not going away soon. It is still deep in our system. Whether it is or isn�t in our blood, it�s in our laws, our behavior, our institutions, our sensibilities, our dreams.
It�s also in our art, which, at its contrarian and ambiguous best, is always on the job, probing, resisting, questioning and traveling miles ahead down the road.
Thursday, April 03, 2008
(Keynote Presentation, Conference “Afro-Latinos: Global Spaces/Local Struggles” University of California at Los Angeles, March 6-7, 2008)
The contrast between the speakers and sponsors of the conferences at Howard and Minnesota represent two distinctive modes of racial politics that are associated with opposing social and political ideologies, cultural politics, and historic projects. For instance, the conference at Howard had speakers from the U.S. Agency for International Department (USAID), and U.S. Black conservatives politicians like Gregory Meek, while the conference at Minnesota featured Jesus “Chucho” Garcia, the main leader of the network of Afro-Venezuelan organizations as the keynote speaker.
In fact, last week Chucho Garcia published an article in the internet critiquing the conference at Howard as an example of the complicity of the Afro-Colombian right with global neoliberalism and with the U.S. imperial project. In the same vein, a U.S. coalition in solidarity with Afro-Colombian grassroots organizations denounced the conference as yet another example of a developing partnership between Black conservatives in Colombia and the U.S. with the twin governments of Bush and Uribe. Likewise, an email of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (one of the largest organizations of the Black movement in Colombia) observed that what was named by the Colombian government as the Afro-Colombian week at Washington, D.C., namely the conference at Howard along with other meetings and a free concert by Afro-Colombian singer Petrona Martinez, was “part of the enchantment that the government deviced to try to get the votes for the Free Trade Agreement”. The title itself, Times of Change and Opportunities for the Afro Colombian Population, reveals an optimism about the current situation of Afro-Colombians, an angle of vision articulated from the standpoint of an increasingly visible political class whose point of view sharply contrasts with the sad condition of millions of Afro-Colombians displaced by the armed conflict, and by the evidence from social research that shows that Afro-Colombians have among the worst indicators of social and economic inequality in the Americas.
The contest over the character of Black politics in Colombia, that so far in our narrative presents an Afro-Colombian elite supportive of Uribe’s regime (with all the implications of his anti-terrorist/pro-war policy of “democratic security”, and his unconditional alliance with U.S. neoliberal and imperialist politics), and allied with conservative sectors in the U.S.; in contrast with Afro-Colombian grassroots organizations and their allies in the U.S. (like the TransAfrica Forum), should be framed in a larger landscape of hemispheric and global geo-politics, cultural politics, and political economy. In this sense, in mapping Black politics in the Americas one of the main contradictions today is between Colombia and Venezuela. On one end the Afro-Colombian elite is becoming a transnational showcase and imperial lab for a conservative neoliberal Pan-Africanism, while on the other end the network of Afro-Venezuelan organizations is championing initiatives for articulating an hemispheric Black left. For the last two years, in the month of November Afro-Venezuelans had been organizing north/south meetings of Afro-Latinos and Afro-North American close allies with that purpose. The 2006 meeting was called Afrodescendents against Neoliberalism and the 2007 Afrodescendents for revolutionary transformations in Latin America. Even though there are close connections with the government led by Hugo Chavez, to the extent that there was government financing for both meetings, there also is a meaningful level of autonomy of the network of Afro-Venezuelan organizations and their leaders from the Venezuelan state. In short, this contrast between the path of the Afro-Colombian Black elite and the Afro-Venezuelan web of social movements is an important point of entry for a cartography of a complex and contested terrain of contemporary Afro-Latino politics.
In this presentation, I will intend to draw, in broad strokes, some key historical, analytical, and political themes, for mapping the arena of Afro-Latino politics within a more general field of social, cultural, and racial politics. For this, I’ll try to present a world-historical perspective on Black social movements as antisystemic forces, in counterpoint to the global pattern of domination and exploitation that Anibal Quijano baptized as the coloniality of power, while engaging in dialogue with Mark Sawyer’s analysis of racial politics as a process of race cycles. I will close by making some practical observations about our roles as intellectuals working on Afro-Latino diasporas from U.S. institutions.
The race cycles perspective articulates a comprehensive framework for an historical analysis of Black politics in the Americas in so far as it combines political-economy and cultural hermeneutics, the interplay of national and transnational forces, the societal significance of critical conjunctures, and Black historical agency. In this analytical schema racial formations are conceptualized as a complex field and a contested process marked by the “constantly unsettled meanings of race and their tension with other societal structures”. In the same vein, racial politics is understand as a structurally determined and historically contingent process, a contested terrain mediated by state formations, imperial statecraft, and the vast array of struggles that compose the everyday scenarios of power relations. The very concept of race cycles signifies a dynamic temporality in which a central scenario is the relationship between the racial state and Black movements as prime movers of the historical ebb and flow between moments of crisis and social unrest, and moments of equilibrium in dominance and hegemony. I will like to suggest that we can engage this theoretical framework with world-historical analysis in order to frame Afroamerican politics in general and Afroamerican movements in particular within larger landscapes of power, this adding a global spatiality to it. A full development of this thesis is beyond the scope of this presentation but I will like to advance some ideas that are necessary to make my argument here.
I will begin with a historical argument that we can identify four main cycles of Black politics in the Americas that correspond to four critical world-historical conjunctures: the first one is the 18th century wave of slave revolts that had it climax in the Haitian revolution (1796-1804), which in turn marked the birth of Black politics as an explicit terrain of identity, rights, and as a project of emancipation. That was the time that Eric Hobsbawn called the “Age of Revolution” when, arguably, the most profound social revolution of the era was in Haiti. Here, I want to quickly highlight the concern that Rebecca raised yesterday about the need to keep-up an active memory of Haiti as the foundation of Black liberation, as an imperative of any transformative transnational agenda of Afrodiasporic politics, a disposition that is enacted by the efforts of Afrovenezuelan representatives to the Andean Parliament to organize a world forum in solidarity with Haiti as approved in the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi. The second period I locate between the first and second world wars, an epoch that was also defined by the Russian and Mexican revolutions, and by the world-economic crisis of the 1930s. In the Black world this was the time of Garveyism and its huge transnational movement of Black self-affirmation, but it was also a tome of a radical Pan-Africanism in which Black marxisms and socialisms were crucial (for instance CLR James in the Fourth International and Claude McKay in the 1921 meeting of the Third International in Russia). On the cultural front it was the period of the Black modernist cultural politics of the Harlem Renaissance, and of Black surrealism and the negritude movement in the Francophone zone of the African Diaspora (France, Africa, and the Caribbean) that articulated their own webs of Black cosmopolitanism and visions of Black freedom dreams (to use Robin Kelley’s _expression). This Afro-Francophone world was the historical universe that produced world-historical figures such as Aime Cesaire and Franz Fanon. The third moment, I date from the post World War II period to the global wave of antisystemic movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is the period that Nikhil Pal Singh characterizes in his book Black is a Country as the long view of the civil rights movement. This moment was marked by a systemic cycle of struggles for decolonization in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, and by the rise of movements against Jim Crow in the United States. In the particular conjuncture of the sixties (which here is not a decade but a historical time that we can trace between 1955 and 1975), the main axis of Afroamerican movements was located in the U.S. that served as an inspiration to struggles of Black liberation in South Africa, and later to the rise of Black politics in South America (as we heard yesterday from Daniel Garces reference to the 1975 Congress of Black Cultures of the Americas in Cali, Colombia). In its second moment (1968-1975) the U.S. Black Freedom Movement (to use Cornel West’s concept to characterize the times) coined the _expression Black power that was later translated into women power, indigenous power, Chicana/o power, etc, thus inspiring and providing language for the new social movements that emerged. The wave of antisystemic movement of the sixties converged with a world-economic recession that was deeply felt in the oil crisis of 1973. The combination of a wave of antisystemic movement and a global crisis of capital accumulation, informed the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The fourth period I am proposing to conceptualize Black racial politics in the Americas, begins in late 1980s and early 1990s. This is the time of the rise of the new American imperialism (for instance, of the invasions of Grenada and Panama, and of the first Iraq war), of the end of the enchantment with neoliberal state policies because people already felt their negative economic and political effects. This was also the era of the peaceful revolution that dismantled the soviet bloc, exacerbating the crisis of actually existing socialism. This was also the moment of the emergence of an array of social movements against the effects of neoliberal globalization and particularly of the rise of Black and Indigenous movements in Latin America.
This current period is the one that I have been researching for several years and I will talk more about this, but before I’ll like to flesh out the argument a bit more by quickly addressing three key theoretical issues that are germane to the main theme of this conference. The first refers to how to analytically represent the global and how to methodologically articulate the relation between the global and the local. There are volumes written and lots to discuss about this sort of questions, but there are a few things I’ll like to say here.
First, that I see globalization as a long-term process, articulated by a world-historical matrix that following Anibal Quijano I conceptualize with the notion of the coloniality of power. In a blurb, the coloniality of power can be represented as the interweaving of four regimes of domination (racism, capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism) and the inter-sectionality of the forms of identity (race, class, gender, sexuality), culture and knowledge, as well as the modes of political-economy (capitalist exploitation and accumulation), and the institutions of geo-politics and political community (modern nation-states and empires) associated with them. There are two dimensions of this argument I want to highlight here. The first is that this sort of world-historical perspective oppose a pervasive methodological nationalism wherein the nation-state is the primary unit of analysis (a methodology and a politics that is clearly challenged by African diaspora perspectives), but it also against top-down world-systems analyses in which the national and the local are simply subordinated to the global. In contrast, I contend that what we call globalization or world-space is a contradictory and relatively open process, in which specific “parts” (such as nations, regions like the Pacific coast in Central America, the Antilles, and the Afroamerican diaspora) have their relative autonomy and therefore their own temporalities and configurations of space. The other point I want to make is that in this understanding of global constellations of power, race and racism and their articulations with labor, gender, sexuality, and knowledge, are central elements in this long-term process of globalization. An important conclusion of this sort of argument is that “racial formations” and racisms (deliberately in plural), are complex and historically specific processes that, on the one hand articulate and unfold in particular ways in time and space (e.g., locally, regionally, and nationally), and on the other hand compose world-historical orders (hence the possibility and significance of concepts such as “world racial order” as proposed by scholars such as Bonilla Silva, Goldberg, Ferreira da Silva, and Mills, among others).
This leads me to address the second analytical question which is: what is the world-historical significance of Blacks movements. As proposed by Bill Martin and Howard Winant, arguably, the first movements for global justice and democracy were the composed struggles against slavery and the abolitionist movement. If by antisystemic movements we mean the constellation of struggles, collective actions, and organizational forms that are able to challenge and transform the global order of things in different key moments in world history, when we analyze the different waves of antisystemic movements, we will see that they correspond to the transnational race cycles that we described before. This is not an historical accident because of the centrality of racist regimes in modern/colonial scenarios of economic, cultural, and political power. I will say that one of the best examples that we have of this kind of world-historical analysis in which individual and collective agency and racial politics are framed within complex and contradictory processes in different spaces and scales (world capitalism, empire-building and imperial competition, state formation, regions, class and race, but unfortunately with no gender analysis) is The Black Jacobins, CLR James’ 1938 book on the Haitian revolution.
My third analytical question is: how to conceptualize the African Diaspora and Afro-Latinidades within the diaspora. I’ve written about this and here I will just say that I build from Tiffany Patterson’s and Robin Kelley’s analysis of the African diaspora as a condition linked to world-historical processes of capitalist exploitation, western domination (geo-political and geo-cultural), and modern/colonial state-formation; and as a process constituted by the cultural practices, everyday resistances, social struggles, and political organization of “black people as transnational/translocal subjects”. I add a third dimension, the African diaspora as a project of affinity and liberation founded on a translocal ideology of community-making and a global politics of decolonization. In this latter sense, the African Diaspora can be conceived as a project of decolonization and liberation embedded in the cultural practices, intellectual currents, social movements, and political actions of Afro-diasporic subjects. The project of diaspora as a search for liberation and transnational community-making is grounded on the conditions of subalternization of Afro-diasporic peoples and in their/our historical agency of resistance and self-affirmation. As a project the African diaspora can be described as a north, a historically grounded utopian horizon to Black freedom dreams.
In mapping African diaspora spaces we need to historicize them specifying their diversity and complexity while analyzing their linkages. Earl Lewis concept of African-American communities as “overlapping diasporas” is a useful tool to understand diversity and articulation within the African diaspora. I propose the concept of intertwined diasporas to signify no only the plurality of histories and projects articulated within the African diaspora, but also the world-historical entangleness of multiple genealogies of diasporic formation (e.g., African, South Asian, and East Asian diasporas composing a Caribbean diaspora space), and the transdiasporic character of world cities’ populations (e.g., working classes and new immigrants as subaltern modernities). Afro-Latinidades tend to be marginalized and even erased from most mappings of the African diaspora, at the same time that African diaspora perspectives need to play a more important role in Latino/American studies. This shows the marginalization of Afro-Latinidades from Latino studies while it reveals our invisibilization as Afro-Latinos/as in most cartographies of the African diaspora. The same Eurocentric ideology that place blackness at the bottom of the great chain of being and imagine Africa as a dark continent outside of history, locate Blacks at the bottom or outside of Latino/Americanist world-regional and national definitions. On the other end, the geo-politics of knowledge that corresponds to the sequence of British and U.S. hegemony in the modern/colonial capitalist world-system, informs cognitive mappings and historical accounts of the African diaspora and the Black Atlantic focused on the Anglo world. Nonetheless, in spite of this double subalternization of Afro-Latinidades from both Anglocentric accounts of the African diaspora and Latino/Americanist discourses, there is a long history of Afro-Latina/o diasporic consciousness and participation in African diaspora networks.
I will now return to the current period of racial politics in the Americas to focus on Afroamerican movements. Let me introject a testimonial element to locate myself and to ground the analysis in my own research. As an Afrodescendant and as an intellectual-activist, what appealed me the most as a topic of research, was the rise of Black movements in Latin America. But after digging more deeply into the subject, I decided to redefine the object of investigation in terms of three interweaved processes that compose the developing field of Black politics in Latin America. The three processes are: social movements of Afrodescendants, ethno-racial state policies, and the increasing importance of transnational actors of diverse character from the United Nations and the World Bank, to the US Agency for International Development and the U.S. Black Congressional Caucus.
Thus, the present dynamics of Black politics in the Americas should be framed within the contested terrain of neoliberal globalization and the forms of state and economy associated with it, the geo-political contest between U.S. imperial designs and its allies against dissident states that oppose it (especially Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela), as well as in relation to the struggles over the redefinition of nationhood and over recognition, rights, and resources that come along with the politicization of ethnic and racial identities of Black and Indigenous peoples in the region. There are local, regional, national, and transnational moments in this arena, and these are the concrete spaces of power that compose the field of forces (to use the _expression of Bourdieu and Foucault) that we are researching and in which we hope to be intervening. This is the general historical scenario within which I frame the current cycle of racial politics in the Americas.
The history of Black social movements had always been diverse and full of conflicts and debates between various political perspectives and ideologies of power, different ways of understanding the meanings of “race” and racism and how to fight against them, and among contending historical projects and their implications in regard to distinct alliances and horizons. For instance, in the 1930s, there were substantive differences among those regarded as the Pan-African leaders of the time. For example, we can see three different views on Africa and its meanings: first in Marcus Garvey’s transnational Black nationalism wherein Africa was the ultimate source of Black identity that needed to be recasted and modernized in favor of a sort of “Black empire” (as analyzed by Michelle Stephens); in contrast to WEB DuBois’ concept of Africa as a necessary referent in Black struggles for democracy and social justice conceived as centered in the Americas; both different from CLR James’ understanding of African struggles for decolonization as a key moment in the larger project of socialist internationalism and particularly within the politics of the Fourth International. Both DuBois and James developed a tradition that Cedric Robinson calls Black Marxism, which constitutes a challenge to both western Marxism with its tendency toward Eurocentrism and class reductionism, and to the dominant strands of Black nationalism that tend not to clearly see the links between racism and capitalism (and I will add patriarchy and imperialism, following women of color feminisms).
Likewise, during the wave of antisystemic movements of the 1960s/1970s, the Black Freedom Movement in the United States, that was one of the keystones of the tsunami of struggles that shook and to some extent transformed the world, was also heterogeneous and fill with all sort of internal differences. Most accounts tend to highlight differences between what is known as the southern-centered civil rights movement which climax is usually dated to the 1963 civil rights march to Washington, D.C., with the resulting approval of laws in 1964 and 1965, against racial discrimination and granting voting rights to Black citizens; in contrast with the Black power movement that is usually described as mostly placed in northern cities, is traced historically to the rise of Malcolm X as premier leader of African-American radicalism, to Stokely Charmichael Black power slogan in SNCC campaigns, and to the emergence of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story is much more diverse and complex and we do not have time and space here for details and nuances, but it is important to say that the differences between the reformist integrationism of the dominant tendency within the civil rights movement, and the revolutionary projects of transformation advocated by organizations such as the Black Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, reveal meaningful differences in the U.S. Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s/1970s. Once again, these are just examples to provide a historical grounding to the outline of the present that I am trying to offer.
When we talk about waves or cycles of social movements, we should recognize a relationship between the rise and fall of antisystemic movements in critical periods of crisis and restructuring in the world-economy, moments of emergence or decline of imperial hegemony (like today), times of proliferation of war or of relative peace, and times of rebellion or of relative conformity. One of the biggest historical dilemmas of strong cycles of protest is that their successes tend to create the conditions for subsequent periods of cooptation and repression by the dominant powers with the consequence that the movements get ripped of their antisystemic character. This dynamics of the ebb and flow of antysitemic movements and race cycles, serves to partly explain the changes in U.S. Black politics after the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s and 70s. The approval of laws that extended the franchise catalyzed a considerable increase in elected position occupied by Blacks, while explicit state opposition to racism by means of laws and public policies against discrimination, and the increase in social mobility partly due to Affirmative Action policies promoted some improvements in education and employment.
All of these developments demonstrate some of the achievements of the U.S. Black movements of the 1960s/70s. However, today class polarizations among Afro-North Americans are more sharp than in the 1960s, while there is weakening of Black left currents (as we can see from the relative failure of efforts such as the Black Radical Congress) and grassroots organizations (even though they are re-emerging especially in the South), at the same time that we are witnessing a rise in Black conservatism, as we can visibly see in figures like Colin Powell and Condoleza Rice. To some extent, the very same successes of the movement facilitated the integration of much of its political energies and social activism within the structures of state and corporate power that champion the racial ideology that Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “color-blind racism”, a racist regime whose ugly face was revealed in the racial and class underpinnings of federal policies toward New Orleans in the crisis of Katrina, and that is embellish with an imperial multiculturalism wherein a Black secretary of state defends another invasion of Haiti and a Latino Attorney General justifies torture in Iraq.
In contrast to the relative weakening of Black social movement and grassroots politics in the U.S., in Latin America there was in the 1980s an effervescence of explicitly Black (or Afro) social movements, a change that we describe as a shift of the main locus of Afroamerican movements from north to south. We know that there is a long tradition of racial politics in Latin America, and nowadays very often the the Partido Independiente de Color in Cuba (from 1908 to the 1912 racial massacre) and the Frente Negra Brasileira in the early 1930s, are used as examples that Black political parties were first organized in Latin America. However, until the 1970s and 1980s most of Afro-Latin American political participation was within the main political parties (mostly liberal and left) and most grassroots efforts within multi-ethnic/racial labor unions and peasant organizations.
A constellation of social movements explicitly self-defined as Black (or Afro) began to emerge unevenly in Latin America and the Creole Caribbean in the late 1970s-early 1980s, and began to bear fruits locally and regionally in the late 1980s-early 1990s. In my research I found that many of the main leaders of Black movements across the region used to be members of the Latin American left who were disappointed with the racism and class reductionism of the mestizo left and consequently shifted gears in the context of the crisis of the Soviet bloc and of socialist discourse in general. The mutual influence of Black and Indigenous movements that emerged together in that period, also place them together with the emergence of new social movement politics (ecological, gender, sexual, cultural, ethnic) not only in Latin America but throughout the world, changing political identities and cultures and the ways and means of doing politics. At the same time there was a maturation of the negative effects of the neoliberal project that included corporate colonization of regions and populations that were relatively apart from the logic of capital and state regulation (like the Pacific Coast of Colombia and Ecuador and the Caribbean coast of Central America). In this process of development of Black cultural and political identities in Latin America, U.S. Black movements and their most visible figures (like ML King and Malcolm X) were (and are) a fundamental referent.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Black and Indigenous movements in Latin American, had been able to organize local grassroots organizations, articulate national webs of social movements and began to weave transnational networks. Along with the so-called Washington Consensus, there was a rise of explicitly Black movements and organizations that led struggles for cultural identity and recognition, ethnic education, land rights, economic justice, ecological integrity, ancestral knowledges, and political representation. By the 1990s, Black and Indigenous movements championed campaigns to declare Latin American states as plutiethnic, multicultural, and even plurinational (especially indigenous) by means of constitutional reforms, thus challenging white elite creole discourses of mestizaje, that were founding ideologies of nationhood since the 19th century. This resulted in constitutional changes of that sort in Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru. These changes were also associated with the organization of a transnational netoworks of Black and Indigenous movements in the Americas. Here, two important moments are the north/south organization in 1992 against the celebration of 1492 as a “discovery”, and the Zapatista uprising in 1994 along with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. For the web of Afro-Latino organizations that still known as the Alianza Estrategica de Afrodescendientes en las Americas (Strategic Alliance of Afrodescendants in the Americas), a strong glue was the process or organizing toward the 2001 world conference against racism in Durban, South Africa. That process served as an organizational and education space for the formation and consolidation of Afro-Latino webs of social movements such as the Alianza Estrategica and the Red de Mujeres Afro-Latinoamericanas, Afrocaribenas y de la Diaspora (Strategic Alliance of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean Women and Women from the Diaspora) that Ivette Modestin, who is here in this conference, represents. It was within this process of hemispheric organizing where the movement developed a collective leadership and a political identity. As put by Romero Rodriguez from Mundo Afro in Uruguay, in one of the most important meetings of the web in 1999 at Santiago de Chile “entramos Negros y salimos Afrodescendientes” (we enter as Blacks and came out as Afrodescendents), meaning that the movement coined the term Afrodescendent as a new political identity with the purpose of including people of African descent of all colors. The term was later was adopted by the U.N, and by NGOs and international organizations. As a political category the signifier Afrodescendant embodies the will of developing diasporic ties with members of the global African diaspora in the Americas and beyond.
After the western boycott to the Durban meeting and its accord, led by the U.S. (which was worsen by its convergence with the events of September 11, 2001), arguably, the region of the world in which the Durban agenda against racism became more salient was in Latin America. The Black movements of the region had obtained important achievements such as the 1993 Law 70 in Colombia (the “law of negritudes rights” that grant collective rights over land primarily to community councils to rural Black communities in the Pacific region), that as Daniel said yesterday can be considered the most important piece of Afro-reparations in the Americas, as well as the land rights of the Quilombolas in Brazil. The organized efforts and collective actions of the movements had captured attention of the governments of the region (signatoires of the Durban accord) and of key transnational institutions (such as the World Bank and IDB). Consequently, now there is a general trend toward state recognition of the specificity of Black identities and cultures in the region, in several countries there are special legislations, and there are government institutional branches developing policies for Black populations. There also is an increase in elected and appointed officials of African descent in the as well as formal efforts to reunite them in a Black Parlament of the region.. There are programs of Affrmative Action developing in Brazil and Colombia, as well as efforts to document and combat institutional and everyday racism. As Linda Kolko mentioned yesterday, this December, in Ecuador there was a meeting to discuss and coordinate initiatives for racial equity in several countries, in this front Brazil is where the movement had the greatest achievement, given that it is the first country of the region with a ministry for racial equity organized at the level of the executive.
However, returning to the counterpoint of the two conferences with which I began this presentation, and bringing the analysis of race cycles in a world-historical perspective, it seems that the very partial successes of the Afro-Latin American movements had facilitated the conditions for the emergence of conservative Black elites, and also for the integration to the state and the NGOization of some of its key leaders and organizations. I don’t have time to develop this here but should say that part of my research could be defined as an ethnography of state and empire, and as an ethnography of transnational funders and NGOs. In my investigation I found that, as in Sonia Alvarez analysis of the women movement, we need a more nuanced analysis than simply speaking about cooptation and integration, and need to differentiate between the transnational actors (for example between USAD and the Interamerican Foundation, and between Gregory Meek and Charlie Rangel as two distinct position in the Black Congressional Caucus) as some Black movements in Latin America and Afro-Latinos in the U.S. do. On the other hand, we need to analyze and evaluate the overall effects of the alliances and the funding with state institutions and transnational actors (some of them powerful reps of transnational capital and the U.S. imperial state) in what for some sectors of the movement can be described as a shift from a politics of movilization and grassroots alternatives to a politics of accommodation and integration into transnational networks of neoliberal governmentality.
Colombia is perhaps the clearest example that we cannot simply understand racial politics in terms of Black movements, but as a more complex and differentiated field of Black politics in each country, in Latin America, and in the Americas. Here the task of the political cartographer is difficult and requires both theoretical sophistication and historical analysis. For instance, a call last week’s by Daniel Mera (from Colombia’s Proyecto Color) for a form of Black solidarity looking up to the U.S. as the only example of Blacks been in power since dynastic Egypt, is a very different strand of transnational Black politics from the one declared by Daniel Garces yesterday when he advocated for an Afrodiasporic agenda for human rights and grassroots development based on ancestral knowledge, territorial integrity, and community self-government. One way of representing this differences is as contending Pan-Africanisms, where we need to sharply distinguish, for instance, a neoliberal Pan-Africanism that advocates for the Free Trade Agreement as a means for “progress and possibility” while defending President Uribe’s policies of “democratic security” (which very much resembles President Bush’s “war on terror”), in contrast with a grounded grassroots Pan-Africanism that defends community self-government, ecological development, regional integration and globalization from below.
This whole scenario refer us to one of the main historical challenges that Afroamerican subjects in general and Afroamerican movements in particular are facing today, which is he question of what is going to be our role in a moment in which we are placed at the limelight of processes of national and hemispheric change. For instance, Afro-Colombians are central actors in the fights for or against Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement. On the other hand, Afro-Venezuelans have been pressuring the government to support their demands to be recognized as a political category with rights, resources, and special policies, to the extent that President Chavez self-declared as Afrodescendant after they organized an hemispheric conference of Afrodescendents against neoliberalism (whether we can call this a gesture of effective change or of “ethno-populism” is an open question). In the context of the highly polarized situation in the Andean region, yesterday in Colombia around 5 million people participated in a march against the paramilitaries, that was largely organized by Afro-Colombian grassroots organizations and that defended Black legislator Piedad Cordova against conservative attacks that also have a racist component. In Ecuador, Afro-Ecuatorians have representation in the constituent assembly (a situation without historical precedents in the Americas), and the Black movement for the first time developed a unified political platform. On the other hand, in the U.S. there is the possibility that a Black person may be elected President. All of this poses big questions to Black politics and to Afroamerican movements in particular. What is the historical project for the African diaspora and what this concretely means in terms of the kind of policies of economic development, political democracy, and cultural politics that we are to articulate and enact? How racial politics is to articulate with class, gender, and sexual politics, and in search of which kind of project of freedom and equality?
I want to close with two very concrete set of observations and concerns that can be turned into proposals. I want to predicate them by saying that as an Afrodescendent intellectual-activist, I am here not only as an academic, but also to participate in one of many attempts to build intellectual-political community. For the last few years I engaged in what I call collaborative action research with Black organizations throughout Latin America, and as many of you know in the South there is ample need and interest in working with academic intellectuals from the U.S. I suggest that we look into the possibility of formalizing this kind of efforts and in addition of having an annual conference, also get involved in projects of translation and exchange to develop a rich and productive dialogue with Afro-Latina/o intellectuals and movements across the Americas. For example, we are witnessing the beginning of ethnic studies and Africana studies in Latin America and there is the possibility of developing a rich north/south dialogue for which Afro-Latinas/os could be a bridge in the positive sense of Gloria Anzaldua.
The last point is that socio-economic indicators from all sources reveal that Afro-Latin Americans suffer from the worst conditions of inequality, and in spite of the relative political and cultural achievements, the conditions of structural racism, cultural devalorization, and everyday racial violence and social marginalization characterizes the life of many of our people. In light of this, Afroamerican social movements are retaking the Durban agenda against racism. This July there will be a conference in Brazil to revive the agenda in the Americas with a projection of another conference in Durban. I suggest we pay special attention to these efforts and try to be part of them. We at the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latina/o Studies and the Department of Afroamerican Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, are committed to steer this process by means of our project on Black Cultures and Racial Politics in the Americas. For many of us it is a firm and concrete step for Afroamerican movements to keep-up the long-term tradition of Black movements as bearers of a radicalization of democracy to build the African diaspora as a transformative force for alternative futures, as an effective source of hope in favor of life and happiness.