Sunday, September 28, 2014

Better Fast Than Right? Between The Colorlines

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an announcement for Facing Race 2014, a national conference organized by Race Forward: The Center For Racial Justice Innovation.  A number of my friends have gone in the past and found it stimulating and useful.  This year’s conference is in Dallas, in November and I have no desire to travel that far, and anyway I hate conferences.  BUT, ever since reading The New Jim Crow, and especially since the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court on the same week that gay marriage was given a shot in the arm, I have been burning to be involved in a movement for racial justice – specifically a movement targeting U.S. apartheid.

Yes, you read that right – I am saying that the U.S. has an apartheid system.

We used to have formal apartheid only in the South, but at that time, we didn’t need it in the rest of the country because whites were a huge majority. So we could have “majority rule” and still have white rule, and with it a “system of segregation and discrimination” which, in case you did not know, is the definition of the Afrikaner word, apartheid.  Ta-Nahisi Coates’ explosive article on reparations in The Atlantic documented the myriad ways in which that unacknowledged apartheid system has been built up over the last eighty years: housing segregation, educational discrimination, employment discrimination, enforced income inequality, denial of credit, discrimination in public benefits, “the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success—and the elevation of that punishment, in the mid-20th century, to federal policy.”  Today one of my friends posted on Facebook an article reporting that families headed by a white person without a high school diploma are wealthier than Black and Latino families headed by someone with a college degree.  (I do wonder, incidentally, how that breaks down in terms of age; I’m guessing that most of those white high school dropouts with 51,000+ of wealth are older, but that’s not here or there.  In 1950, 56.3% of whites 25-29 had graduated high school.  In 2012, it was 94.6%.  For Asians it was 96.1, for African Americans, 88.5 and Latinos, 75.1.)

Now there are lots of organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, that are, in theory, working to rectify these gross injustices.  In point of fact, Race Forward (until recently Applied Research Center), the organizer of the conference and publisher of Colorlines, itself has an office here.  So I shouldn’t need to go to a conference 2000 miles away to find something to get involved in.  Sadly, though, none of the myriad racial justice nonprofits seems to be looking for middle-aged, middle class white women to become part of their cadre.  Quite understandable.  Not, mind you, that I have to be cadre.  I’d be happy to help stuff envelopes (huh? I’m sure the young organizers would say?  What’s an envelope?), proofread copy for their websites, or make phone calls.  I frequently discuss this with a friend who has similar interests.  She called an organization we both admire and offered to call people who had signed up to volunteer, find out what they want to do and try to get them plugged in.  The organizer she spoke to eagerly embraced that idea.  He never called her back.

So I did not immediately delete the Facing Race announcement from my inbox.  I left it there to fester.
The next time I thought about it, it was because I saw a tweet on #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, from someone (not sure who – can’t find it now) saying they were boycotting the conference and Colorlines because #IStandWithAura.  Okay, I knew who Aura is (here I want some credit for not making a bad pun like what color is your aura).  Aura Bogado is the news editor of Colorlines, a frequent contributor to The Nation and AlterNet.  I generally like her stuff.  We have some mutual friends.  I frantically paged back back back in my twitter feed to find out why I needed to stand with her and boycott a conference I hadn’t decided to go to.

What I learned was this:  On September 10, Bogado posted an article responding to a video, or t-shirt commercial, by a company called “FCKH8.”  I never heard of the company but I h8ed them instantly because everything around here knows that “H8” has something to do with the gay marriage.  (Proposition 8 was the ballot measure that outlawed gay marriage in California, the very same one that was struck down a few days after the Voting Rights Act.)

Here’s how FCKH8 describes themselves:  “ is a for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as “mini-billboards” for change. Started in 2010 with comedic viral videos that captured millions of views on YouTube, has shipped almost 200,000 equality tees, tanks and hoodies to supporters in over 100 countries.”

You don’t really have to go to their website to get the picture.  I have no doubt that they’re people who care about the issues they are promoting, as well as people who never met an issue they couldn’t make a buck off.

The specific video Bogado (and apparently other Colorlines staff who contributed to the article) were responding to was advertising a t-shirt that says, “Racism Is Not Over But I’m Over Racism.”  It’s title: A Kinda Awkward Note To America By #Ferguson Kids.”  The article raises a bunch of very legitimate questions about this video and its kind:  “Even if the children are from Ferguson, it’s unclear if or how they’ve been compensated. Either way, the idea that these kids are from Ferguson is paraded for consumption…. According to its website, “recently became owned and managed by Synergy Media,” a corporate branding firm whose clients include Magnum bodybuilding vitamin supplements and pretty offensive “Buckeye Boob T’s” (the latter despite the fact that says it’s anti-sexist).  There’s an entire economy around black death—and this ad campaign illustrates it all too well. Ironically, this economy’s profit margins depend on upholding the very racism this video claims to want to eliminate.”  Bogado’s post also mentioned that $5 from the sale of each shirt “will supposedly go to unidentified ‘charities working in communities to fight racism.’”

The article, which is quite short (353 words), drew a spate of h8 tweets and accusations of "reverse racism" by supporters of FCKH8, along with a press release revealing that Race Forward was one of the “unidentified organizations” designated to receive the money.  On September 15, Race Forward added a 464-word “update,” read by many as an apology and unwarranted criticism of Bogado, who was not mentioned.  Hence #IStandWithAura was born.

As far as I can tell the original post contains exactly one claim which is inaccurate: that FCKH8 didn’t have gear specifically promoting transgender equality.  Everything else addressed in Race Forward’s update was not a statement but a question or a comment about the appropriateness of the video’s medium and message.  Race Forward didn’t know that it was one of the designated charities, and said they were turning down the money.

Also as far as I can tell, Race Forward does not denounce Aura Bogado, the original blog, nor apologize for its content.  The statement was signed “Colorlines and Race Forward,” which is more confusing than clarifying.  Bogado is the news editor, so one would expect her to have been involved in crafting the response.  Was she not?  Her supporters jumped in to StandWith her and denounce Colorlines, which the next day issued a Unity Statement, criticizing itself for its response.

For her part, Aura Bogado seems to have said nothing.

What this incident illustrates for me is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and one of the reasons I’ve been blogging less and less frequently.  The Internet Age rewards people who don’t think too long or deeply about what they put out in the world.  Big duh, right?  The evidence of that is everywhere, from the smearing of Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, to the #CancelColbert campaign which harmed its creator far more than it did Colbert or the people who sent an offensive tweet in his name.  Yet the ethic of better fast than right continues to gain credence.

I recently sent an op-ed about a Supreme Court decision to a respected online publication.  They rejected it because the decision was four days old already.  I understood, but was frustrated.  This sped-up news cycle privileges the voices of those who can drop everything to pen their comments.  But it also privileges those who don’t do too much research, or let the fact that they don’t know much stop them from mouthing off.  And then we get mad at each other and jump on each other for being wrong.

Could the people who wrote the original post on Colorlines have looked a little more carefully at the website of FCKH8 and seen that they have some transgender-themed t-shirts?  Indisputably.

Could Colorlines have taken time to talk to Bogado and others about the implications of their response to criticism before posting it, making sure no one felt disrespected?  Definitely.

Is there a benefit to people boycotting Colorlines, one of the most thoughtful (usually) publications out there taking race seriously?  Not a chance.

Will the bad feeling created by this public fracas live on in subtle or not-so-subtle ways?  Who knows?

As I have previously observed, movement people are notoriously purist and quick to judge.  I shudder to think what my friends and I might have done to one another in the eighties, if we had had Twitter at our disposal.