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Mismeasuring Democracy:

A Conversation on Race in America

Anthony A. Parker

When I was a kid my mother told me that I could be successful if I worked twice as hard as my white competitors; I had to do just what they did, only much better. My mother had taken the measure of the white ethic, and her advice grew out of her sense of the ways of white Americans. She understood the high value placed by the culture on personal achievement and on ensuring fair rewards for such achievement. Armed with this same understanding, I could participate as an equal member of the society, as a citizen-if I made the extra effort required of black Americans.

I have had some success with my mother's advice. But I also know the painful and demoralizing barriers to inclusion that mark the limits of that advice. A couple of personal incidents stand out for me as monuments to those limits.

The first occurred in an exclusive hotel in the Georgetown section of Washington. My mother was planning a visit from New York, and I was looking for a nice place for her to stay. Casually but neatly dressed, my New York Times and Washington Post tucked under my arm, I walked to the hotel's front desk. A white woman behind the desk was helping out two white guests. Abruptly turning to me, she asked: "Are you here for the laundry?" The two men quickly turned away, embarrassed more for her than for me. Was she really unaware that you do not talk that way any more? After explaining why I was there, she recovered with a feeble "How can I help you?" My mother stayed at another hotel.

The second incident also took place in Georgetown, this time in front of the house where I was living with two housemates (both white). One night, as my housernates and I looked on from our front steps, two dozen teenagers spilled out onto the street from a party in the house next door. A fight started, someone called the police, and within minutes several black officers arrived. I watched in near disbelief as the cops herded the kids, with their bottles of Jack Daniels and Mohawk, back into house. One of the officers then a approached us and demanded some identification. My housemates responded by telling her that they lived there. No problem. But my word was not enough. I had to produce my key and turn it in the lock to prove that I lived where I said I did.

As these experiences suggest, black Americans are still losing the struggle to be fully a part of a world we have lived in for more than 300 years. Our lives are still defined by the presumption that we are outsiders, that we do not belong where we are. So we face a fundamental moral and political question: Living in a world in which personal strivings continue to be trumped by racial exclusion, what are we to do? In the aftermath of the Rodney King affair in Los Angeles, and beset by countless physical, political, and spiritual ills, we cannot answer that question without first asking ourselves whether we have really taken the measure of American democracy.

I do not think we have. For more than 40 years, the struggle for racial equality has been defined as a struggle for racial integration. Despite that struggle, racial division continues to be a basic fact of American life. It has displayed an unexpected persistence, and we need to take that persistence seriously. Taking it seriously will require that we rethink our ideas about racial equality and about democracy itself. In essence, what we need is an alternative to the project of integration and to the presumption that underlies that strategy: that but for some continuing obstacles that can be overcome with special personal efforts or with the occasional push from the government, we live in an essentially colorblind world of equal citizens.

An alternative conception of racial equality would take the facts of power more seriously. It would start from the idea that democracy and race are social constructs designed only to serve groups that can back up their claim to benefits in ways that other social groups understand and respect. With that alternative conception as our point of departure, we should seek to establish understanding and respect by developing a political project that empowers us in our own world, in the white world, in the Latino world, and in any other world that hyphenates its ethnicity with "American." We should accept that America is a nation of parts-racial, ethnic, and regional-and that democracy must be defined in part by blacks as a group rather than simply accepted as a cross-culturally shared ideal.

This line of thought should not be confused with an irresponsible form of black nationalism that advocates the overthrow of the American government or geographic separation within the territory of the United States. Nor does it imply that we ought to scrap or even radically retool the legal foundations of racial integration. Instead it assumes that black Americans need to learn a fundamental lesson from other groups that have come to this country and have almost immediately surpassed us by every conventional measure of success. We need to think of ourselves more as a group of outsiders struggling to be recognized as citizens in a new place than as insiders who are already accepted as members-but for the demand that we try a little harder.

More specifically, we need first to reaffirm our spiritual traditions-to keep telling the story of Exodus and the Diaspora-and to draw the political, economic, and cultural lessons from those traditions. Second, older members of our community need to reassert their authority over young people and children and to hold them accountable to the community for their behavior and development. Third, we need to cultivate our intellectual traditions and institutions, and to rebuild church-based freedom schools. Fourth, we must aggressively register people to vote and then hold the feet of our elected and appointed officials to the fire. Finally, we need to exercise greater control over our own economic resources.

* * *

These suggestions provide one answer to our fundamental moral-political question, and they represent one line of thought in a debate about race and democracy that is now going on in the black community. In part a debate about what we are to do, it is at the same time a debate about who we are-indeed whether black Americans really do constitute a "we"-and what relations we should have to the many other minority communities who in some measure share the black experience of exclusion.

My own thinking about these issues has been formed by those debates, and in particular by a meeting held in July of this year. A group of blacks from across the United States gathered in Denver for a week-long discussion of "Spirit and Struggle." We were men and women; straight and gay; Christian, Muslim, and atheist; teachers, pastors, students, activists, and authors. Some had been leading activists in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; some were the children of such activists. In short, the group reflected the diversity of the black community. The main item on our agenda was the meaning of Los Angeles and its implications for the struggle for civil rights. By turns insightful, bitter, and sad, our conversations provided a glimpse into the soul of black America.

The discussion was also frightening. In part because of the diversity of the group, our conversations quickly turned to issues of sexism and other divisions within the black community, and to the need to foster political relationships with other minority groups, especially Latinos. The fact is that we had not previously realized the extent of our differences: we are really different from one another and not just the fragmented members of a cohesive group. Because of these differences, there were periods of discussion in which we literally did not recognize each other politically, economically, socially, spiritually, or culturally. That in itself was instructive. But the real lesson of the meeting was that the critical first step in working out a common political project would be to develop a sense of tolerance among ourselves.

You can get a sense of these concerns from the following excerpt of a conversation held on the last day of the retreat. Several participants came together to discuss issues of race and democracy in the United States. The participants in the conversation were the Reverend Cyprian Fields, Assistant to the Bishop for Social Ministries, Episcopal Archdiocese, Washington, D.C.; the Reverend Mwalimu Imara, Professor of Medical Ethics and Human values, Morehouse College, Atlanta; Aishah Simmons, a Philadelphia filmmaker; and Linda Mizell, Director of Admissions of the Cambridge Friends School and author of Thinking About Racism.

The conversation focused first on themes of racial exclusion and American democracy. But then it shifted rapidly to our understanding of the black nation itself, to the diversity of black America, to the problems of alliance with other minorities, and to the need to find a common voice. These are hard problems, and you will not see them resolved here. What you will see, however, is a group of people honestly and seriously addressing them. The next generation of struggle for racial equality will emerge out of precisely such discussions.

* * *

Parker: How would each of you characterize the relationship between race and democracy in the United States today?

Imara: When the question of democracy comes up, I kind of 'dis it in America. I do not participate in it. I do not feel that this is a place where I can participate as a citizen. Although I arrived here from Canada in 1953, 1 have in fact never become a citizen. For a number of years now, I have been invited to become a citizen. This is automatic: if you carry a green card, they keep reminding you to become a citizen. While there is much about America that I appreciate, as a black man I discovered early on that I could not be a full participating citizen. That is why I kept my passport. I thought "at least I can go somewhere else." I do not know how much better Canada is in terms of race, but I did feel there that I was a citizen.

Parker: Explain the difference between the countries. How could you feel like a citizen there, even though you are not sure that it is better in terms of race?

Imara: It is cultural. Canadian citizens can call on the forces of the community to protect in a number of ways. I would leave my work on Friday night and fly to Montreal just to feel free. I could walk down the street knowing that if a person did not like me, they could not spit in my face, and they could not strike me. I knew that a policeman could not pin me down on a whim, that I had the law to back me up, and that the culture supported the law. It was not a matter of aesthetic preferences-of whether or not they like black or not. The protections were there in any case.

Here, by contrast, I have never felt like a citizen. I have been struggling since 1953. 1 have had to fight for everything that we have, from labor unions all the way to schooling for my children-for everything. I do not think it is possible for a black person to participate in what goes on in America because the democracy draws a ring of exclusion around us.

Mizell: I do not put race and democracy in the same sentence, even in the same context. I do think a lot about race. What I think about is the unwillingness, or maybe the inability, of most folks to deal with race or racism. That is especially true of white folks, but it also covers black folks, Asian folks, and Latino folks.

But I do not think much about democracy at all. When I think about the lie I was taught during most of my formal education-the lie about American democracy-I get mad. It's not a lie I want to pass on to my children. I want them to have a dream and a vision of the kind of society they want to build, and that society may well be a democracy. But I do not want them to think there is something out there right now that they can belong to; I know they cannot.

Parker: But in a true democracy, is race an issue that needs even to be addressed? I am not asking about racism, but about race itself.

Mizell: We cannot ignore race. A Canadian friend has described experiences to me in which she will be riding a bus and notices little kids turning around to look at her because they have never before seen a black person. She had no problem with the head-turning. What pushed her buttons was that the mothers were jerking their heads around, too. She summed it up this way: "Children notice race. They ought to be able to notice race." After all, we spend millions of dollars buying little sorting toys so that kids can categorize and sort things. We encourage them to categorize. But then when it comes to race, all the skills we have taught them are supposed to go out the window. As my friend said: if kids do not notice race, they ought to have their eyes checked.

Simmons: I was raised to participate in the system, but not necessarily to believe in it. My parents were both involved in the civil rights movement; they put their lives on the line to be able to vote. So when I turned 18, 1 knew that I had to participate, like it or not. I also thought that our rights were not being protected and we were not getting what we needed because we had white people in office. So I really became a believer in electing black officials. And I do still believe that. But I live in Philadelphia, and followed the MOVE tragedy very closely. (On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped a fire bomb on a house in order to evict MOVE, a black religious-political group that was defying an eviction notice. Eleven people were killed, five of them children.] The massacre was ordered by a black mayor [Wilson Goode]. Once we buy into this democratic system, we start to resemble those we are trying to change.

Fields: When I was a child, I was taught about "One nation, indivisible." I believed it. But somewhere along the line I came to the conclusion that racism is the truest form of manipulation of power by those who hold it in a democracy. I say this because I do not see any real evidence in this nation of a commitment to eliminating racism. I see no concrete evidence that this nation is taking the steps that are needed to build up and maintain a democratic republic, based on principles of equal representation.

For example, we do not seem now to be interested in making it easier for people to vote. We do not seem interested in simple things like voter drives, like holding elected officials accountable. This nation seems to have within it a tendency to suicide. I sincerely believe that this nation would now rather commit political suicide than move forward to achieving the ideals of a viable, democratic republic.

* * *

Imara: Cyprian used the word "nation" to refer to the country as a whole. But that word immediately suggested to me the black community. We are a nation, but a colonized nation without access to this democratic system. Those of us who join this system and take positions in the government then have the job of keeping the rest of the black folks in check. We are now a colonized nation in place, and I look forward to the day when we are a liberated nation in place.

Because of this colonization, the symbols of American democracy-the flag in particular-are my strongest reasons for not becoming a citizen. In the moments when I have been in greatest distress-threatened with degradation, physical injury, and death-I have stood facing the flag.

When I first arrived here from Canada in July 1953, 1 went to a hotel in Albany, New York. I paid for my room - in fact, the most expensive room in the hotel-and then found that the only thing in it that worked was the flush box. I went downstairs to object. They called the police. That was the first time I saw the badge, the patches, the American flag. Since then, I have seen that flag at every demonstration, for my rights, for my brothers' and sisters' rights. The flag offends me; and it is one of the principal symbols of this democracy.

People are making a fuss in Georgia right now about the Stars and Bars, the rebel flag of Georgia. And there is a referendum movement to try to change the flag before the Olympics to avoid bad world press. Well, I feet exactly the same way about the Stars and Stripes. If I am stuck on a highway, and I see that flag on a truck coming down the road, I could be in danger.

Parker: How do people respond to Imara's idea that we are a nation, and that we should aim for black nationhood? How can we achieve black nationhood in this deteriorating American democracy?

Simmons: I have two ideas about that. First, I am committed to the liberation of black people in America. But I also believe in connecting with all people of color in this country. I am grappling with what I mean by "all," but I do believe that we can all struggle and achieve a democracy. In that struggle, however, it is very important for people of African descent to connect and communicate with Native Americans, Chicanos and all Latinos, and Asians. our struggles are so similar. I have been in situations in which everyone fights for a piece of the pie, saying "I am more oppressed than this person." I think that oppression has just been different for different folks. We, as people of color, spend so much of our time pitting white people against black. We could be so much more powerful if we connected with other people of color. I do not know what it is like to be Chicano or Native American. I do not know their issues of prejudice. But I do think it is important to link those issues, and not simply to focus on black and white or Latino and white.

The second issue is that it is hard for me to talk about race and democracy without bringing in the issues of gender. While we work toward a more equal society, we also need to address sexism. That has been used as a tool to divide us. Moreover, we need to address racism and sexism at the same time: they are interconnected and together they have a profoundly destructive impact on everyone in the country.

Parker: But how can we combine this focus on cross-cultural relations with a concern about race and democracy? Doesn't the relationship between black and white present the basic obstacle to the promise of democracy in the United States?

Mizell: I agree with you, Anthony. Aishah emphasizes that different struggles are connected. There is no question about that. MY first priority, though, is dealing with issues of black folks. Not to the exclusion of other folks, but I want us to get our house in order. Part of that process of getting our house in order will be to make connections with other folks. But those connections will require some really disciplined and focused kind of study.

One reason why we have such difficulty making those connections is because we do not know about the history of other people. Once we learn about our own history and understand better how all our fates-and in particular the fates of people of color-are interconnected, then it will be impossible to look at our own issues without also looking at the issues of others.

I will give an example. In the community I am a part of, we made a commitment to be an anti-racist community. We have worked hard to achieve that goal. One part of that process is that we have also made a commitment to be an antihomophobic community. Once we were aware of the subtle oppressions that brutalize our children and our colleagues, we also started to become aware of how those same patterns of oppression applied to gay and lesbian people in our community. There are wide ranging opinions about sexual orientation, and so a lot of people were not comfortable with that approach. The point we made in response is that it is not whether you approve or disapprove or even understand another person's lifestyle. It is about how you treat people; it is not about touchy-feely sensitivity, but about institutions, about preventing behavior that deprives other people of basic rights.

Imara: The gay and lesbian black community is not a different community; it is part of our community. The issue that we are grappling with is how the black community should relate to other oppressed peoples of color. I agree that the black community needs to relate to them. But in 40 years of struggle, my experience of collaborating with other people has always, without exception, been that black folks get the short end of the stick.

For example, I was a member of one organization who constituents fought for a more inclusive board. We became more inclusive. And the minute that happened, the Native Americans and the Spanish-speaking community combined to try to deal with us and get us out. If we look now at what is happening politically in the Hispanic community, what we will see is that they are organizing around us and that there is a kind of competition. That is not romantic; it is politics. The question is: what will be the focus of our political energy?

I am going to say "black first." Then yes, we will negotiate on an organized basis, on common interests. Gay and lesbian forces have to say: "Look, I have got a stake in this and you are going to deal with gender issues if you want my energy in the black coalition." I plan to be cold-blooded in talking about these issues. I am not going to go around looking for new coalitions. I just want to try to get our house together, to build coalitions only as we need them. That is a lesson I paid a lot to learn, and it allows me to avoid being paranoid. I can work with any groups. But I am not going to be fooled about what will happen when we get down to a power cut.

Fields: We do need to have relations with other groups, yes. First, however, we need to have a sense of our own agenda. Current trends in population growth indicate that whites will be in a minority in this country in twenty years. We will have a country of powerless minorities in intimate communities. So we will need to know who these people are, because we have no guarantee whatsoever that those emerging minority communities will not incorporate black people within their own struggles. In fact, we can see evidence of that in some minority and ethnic communities today.

So I think that as we look ahead, we need to keep in mind that the cultural and social situation will change dramatically over the next 30 years. We need to discipline ourselves enough to be able to set down a coldly logical course of action. Otherwise we may end up like South Africa: a country with a white minority that hold the real power.

Simmons: I am glad that you said that about South Africa, Cyprian. Because there are people who think "Soon we will outnumber them." They are right about the numbers, but the numbers may not matter.

I want, however, to come back to the issue of the relations of the black community with other minorities, in particular with the Hispanic community. Imara made some remarks about that community. But I think it is important to talk more specifically about the black Hispanic community and the Caribbean community. What I have found is that while black Hispanics may not necessarily identify with African-Americans, they do identify with Caribbean folks; they do relate to Jamaicans, Haitians, and Trinidadians, for example. And they are clear that they are black people. And I was thinking about that in particular because I have met black Hispanics who feel alienated from us because we tell them you do not speak English." So when we talk about getting our own house in order, Imara, we need to remember our other brothers and sisters in the diaspora.

Finally, on this issue of brothers and sisters in the diaspora: I was glad to see that Linda raised the issue of homophobia. I am a lesbian, but a lesbian from the African diaspora. I stress that because I really want it to be known that I am personally very committed to the African community. Sometimes people think that if you are gay or lesbian, then you are not really concerned with the African-American community. But it is very important for me, and for other brothers and sisters I know who are gay and lesbian, to stay within our community, to work in it, and to support what we are building. I have been involved in the overall gay and lesbian community, and have felt alienated and isolated. We had just one thing in common: our sexual preferences. But when I work in the black community, even with people who may have problems with the way I live my life, I still feel that we are working toward a common goal; I feel like we are family.

Mizell: I think it was my role to bring up the issue of homophobia. You should not always have to carry the burden of being the one who challenges heterosexism. Part of the reason for this is that I have a commitment to dealing with all our oppressions. But it is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. If Aishah has to give all her energy to fighting homophobia, then she is not going to be able to make the commitment to the struggle of African people. And I want her to be able to do that. So I have to help her carry some of that weight. We have to look at all these pieces as parts of our struggle-because I want black people to be free. And I want all black people to be free to join the struggle for our freedom.

Fields: What our discussion is bringing out, I think, is the diversity of the black community. We are not at all monolithic. And the job we need to do-people like us, if I may say-is to find a way to bring our messages to that diverse community. We cannot look away from it, as we have for so long. There are-I hate to admit-black people who are comfortable where they are right now. Martin Luther King found that out when he began. There were lots of black people who said "don't rock the boat." Now that was a different time; the boat has already been rocked.

Mizell: Not very different. You are right about the diversity of the community. And you are right that we need to bring our message before that community. But I have no illusion that black people-or for that matter any people-have ever or will ever rise up as one single group. I would love to take the whole community along., but I do not have to and I do not expect to; it is not realistic. What I want is to create a community or collection of communities that understand the need for a common voice and come together around issues of freedom....

Originally published in the September-October 1992 issue of Boston Review



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