Wednesday, October 17, 2012

B(l)ack to the Future: A Black Feminist Critique of the Second Presidential Debate

Source: US News

I’m going to be very honest, I’m not particularly interested in the conversation concerning whether Mr. Romney or President Obama won the most recent presidential debate (October 16, 2012). I find such conversations elementary and not particularly productive for the populations I care most about. I’m not suggesting that such conversations should not take place; however, I’ll leave them for other more skilled pundits to engage in. I’m also not interested in whether President Obama’s pitch went up or whether he had daggers in his eyes; the pundits on CNN immediately took care of such post debate. Finally, I’m not interested in the fact that the wives wore similar color dresses—those with fashion blogs are much more skilled at having this conversation. What I’m interested in is some elements of the conversation that can prove problematic for Black women. While I focus primarily on Mitt Romney, my commentary is not an endorsement of President Obama.

Mitt Romney can prove dangerous for Black women and their families. Please indulge me as I attempt to unpack a few of Mitt Romney’s statements.

1                Points of light vs. 5-Point Plan

As I listened to Romney last night all I heard was Bush’s voice talking about his points of light. Remember that? Now, I can’t necessarily compare Romney and Bush’s policies—only because Romney’s policies have yet to be revealed. However, given his stance on a few issues, I’ll take a guess as to what might be involved. Given his focus on business I’m guessing that part of his 5-point plan involves trickle down economics (this started during the Reagan administration and continued into the Bush administration). As a result of the 1980s economic policies, I can unequivocally state that Trickle Down Economic policies have been detrimental to Black women and their families. Black women DID NOT accumulate wealth during the first unveiling of trickle down economics. Furthermore, this approach does nothing to challenge inequality—economic, social and political inequality.  

As a group, Black women are financially vulnerable. The raced-gendered nature of the economy results in them accumulating less wealth and they are more prone to poverty, in comparison to other groups, over their life cycles. Let's just take a quick snap shot of Black women's current economic situation.

A 2011 report by the Pew Research Center informs us that: 

·         White households have 20 times the wealth of Black families.
·         The rates have doubled since the most recent recession. 

                    Furthermore, according to National Women's Law Center
  • Black women represented 1 in 8 (12.5 percent) of all women workers in June 2009.  But between June 2009 and June 2011, black women accounted for more than 4 in every 10 jobs (42.2 percent) lost by women overall
  •  Black women lost more jobs during the recovery (258,000) than they did during the recession (233,000); women overall lost slightly more than half as many jobs during the recovery (612,000) as they did during the recession (1,199,000).
  •   Black women’s unemployment rate rose 2.1 percentage points between June 2009 and June 2011, compared to an increase of 0.7 percentage points among black men.  Unemployment also rose during the recovery by 0.3 percentage points among women overall and among white women by 0.2 percentage points. Some groups experienced a decrease in unemployment during the recovery, including men overall by 0.8 percentage points, and among white men, Hispanic men, Asian men, Hispanic women, and Asian women.

As a Black woman, I’m also concerned with HOUSING—safe, affordable housing. Neither Mr. Romney nor President Obama addressed this issue. As a group, Black women have been systematically negatively impacted as a result of housing foreclosures. In comparison to White men, Black women were 236% more likely to receive a subprime mortgage. These women, I suspect were easy prey because they are among the invisible in our political landscape. I’m not sure how this is addressed in Romeny’s five-point plan. If I were to hazard a guess, I would argue that given his position on deregulation, a key component of the Bush administration, that Romeny would allow the banks and mortgage companies free reign and as such Black women would continue to be the prey of predatory lending. Combined, his trickle down economic approach and his housing approach do not bode well for Black women. They will do little to lift us out of poverty and even less for wealth accumulation.
Black women can ill afford another Bush presidency.

2                   Urban Policy (or the lack of it)

Where was the mention of URBAN AMERICA during the debate? Particularly, where is/was the conversation on job growth in urban America? Neither candidate discussed this issue (critique of Obama’s urban policy).

Romney keeps talking about job growth—again, there are no specifics on how this might be accomplished in our urban areas. This leaves me to reach back into the past to determine what Romney might do in the future. I argue that urban policy—progressive urban policy designed to address the development of human capital will be non-existent in the Romney administration should he become president. Romney’s plan, via a story told by Ryan during the vice presidential debate (October 11, 2012) seems nested in personal responsibility. After all, Romney, according to Ryan, gave money to a family who happened on hard times. This leaves me to believe that urban policy will rest on the generosity of individuals/charities thereby absolving the federal government from addressing many of the problems plaguing urban communities.

Black women can ill afford another round of ignoring urban America.

3              Culture of poverty/violence argument.

Finally, there was a question addressing terrorism within the US—specifically the question dealt with the issue of gun violence in America. Romney’s response suggest that as president he would lead us deeper into the pit of morality policing (interestingly President Obama did not feel the need to interrupt Romney as he offered his response on how to address gun violence).

In response to the question, Romney asserted,

“We need moms and dads helping raise kids wherever possible. “The benefit of having two parents in the home — and that is not always possible, lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies they ought to think about getting married to someone, that’s a great idea. Because if there is a two parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically. So we can make changes in the way our culture works to bring people away from violence and give them opportunities and bring them into the American system.”

Paul Ryan (Romeny’s Vice Presidential nominee) in an interview with ABC12-Michgan, argued,

“We have good strong gun laws. We have to make sure we enforce our laws. We have lots of laws that aren’t being properly enforced. We need to make sure we enforce these laws, but the best thing to help prevent violent crime in the inner cities is to bring opportunity to the inner cities, is to help people get out of poverty in the inner cities, is to help teach people good discipline, good character, that is civil society. That is what charities and civic groups and churches do to help one another make sure they can realize the value in one another.”

Back to the Past, let’s hit the rewind policy button for a moment

The only thing missing from this response is Romney standing in-front of the White House holding a vial of “crack-cocaine”. Do you remember how former President Bush, sr. engineered the buying of crack-cocaine “outside” of the White House? Such an act was used to elicit fear of the ever dangerous crack baby and his/her mother. The problem of these women, it was suggested, is their failed parenting skills and lack of morals. Thus, it was suggested that in order to remove such a dangerous species from society, policy would be directed to (re)inserting men—particularly Black and Brown men—in their rightful place. The rightful place is the head of the household. This is the one instance where the dangerous Black man disappears. He is now constructed as a savior. Interestingly, President Obama supports such fatherhood promotion.

In a potential Romeny/Ryan administration the state would serve as the patriarch/slave master of Black women. The Drug War, which employed such use of the state, has rendered Black women the fastest growing prison population in this country. The slave master, vis-à-vis welfare reform, has resulted in (some) Black women’s lost of social welfare; it has led to their punishment and their denial to programs such as public housing. It seems that a Romney presidency would lead us deeper into the pit of the morality police.

Black women can ill afford more supervision from the patriarchal/slave master state.

4           The Binder of Women.

In response to the question on pay equity, Mitt Romney claimed that he has a record of  responding to the “issue”. He asserted that once he assumed the position of Governor of Massachusetts, that he was frustrated with the lack of women in government. Given his frustration, Romney 
“ went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' and they brought us whole binders full of women,”

This statement is problematic on so many levels. Let’s ignore that fact that Romney did not respond to the question. I suspect that it will take a number of posts for me to unpack this comment. So, I’ll offer my initial thoughts.

For one, Romney did not discuss who was in the binder and how they came to be placed there and how access influenced the collection of names that made it into the binder. After doing some digging, here’s what I learned concerning the binders. 

The now infamous binder was the result of the actions of a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts. This was a group that was organized by MassGAP, whose charge involved addressing the representation of women in senior leadership positions in state government. 

Mitt Romeny misappropriated the work of over 40 organizations. He stole the work of these women!

In my initial response to this statement of the binder, I immediately thought of the selling of slaves (no I’m not equating the two actions!). Slave were paraded on the auction block and sold to the highest bidder. The manner, or maybe it has more to do with the tone, in which Romney spoke of this binder brought to mind such an inspection of the “women” who eventually made it into the binder. He seemed like the “Lord” overseeing the workers. After uncovering additional information about the development of the binders, I was even more convinced of Romney’s sinister use of women. Like slave masters who stole the work of others, it seems that Romney has done similar.

I will say that there is one positive on the Women in the Binder claim. Romney has opened a door for us to speak to the issue of affirmative action. The question I’m left with is: Will Black women be included in this conversation?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Public Displays of my Blackness: Personal Politics with Public Consequences

I’m a girl from the little Island of Barbados. For the most part, I grew up with folk that look like me—some might have been darker, some might have been lighter. My family is an interesting mix of people that reflect the legacy of colonialism and slavery. At the age of 16 I decided to permanently reside in the US. My college experience (at the undergraduate level) was not always the most challenging, but my experience with race was a different story. I won’t take you through my various experiences with race; instead, I’ll focus on how I negotiated my personal politics with the public display of my Blackness. 

Talking about race is not always easy. However, I believe that for my personal wellness race, like money and intimate relationships, must be dealt with even if it makes us uncomfortable. At the age of 16 I did not understand that I could have a personal politics on this issue. I couldn’t even name what I felt. However, I did feel the need to confront some public representations of poor Black women (even if veiled in the “legitimacy” of political discourse). About three years into my education, one of my Economics professors stated that on the 1st and 15th of every month drug sales increase because that’s when welfare checks are received. I was the only person of color in the class. No one said anything. Here I sat, a 19 year old immigrant, still learning to confront and understand racial differences, feeling to my core that something was wrong with this statement. So I raised my hand and asked (I’m paraphrasing here) “Doesn’t the rest of America also get paid on those days?” I can’t remember her response, but I can remember how I felt. Let’s fast forward to my experiences in academia where I sit in the position of colleague and professor. Most of my professional life has been spent at Historically White Institutions where I find myself in the position of being the only one in my department and/or one of a few in the entire institution. That same feeling that I had as a 19 year old still raises its head from time to time. Something isn’t right and will I be the lone figure to raise my hand. 

Many moons have passed since I sat in the classroom as a 19 year old young woman and I’ve had many experiences with race that have left me wondering “why am I doing this to myself”. The beauty of all of these challenges is that I’ve come to a place where I manage the public display of my Blackness. By the public display of my Blackness, I am referring to situations where being the only one makes me stand out. For example, attending graduation and family day are events where my Blackness is put on display—often in stark contrast. Needless to say, these very public events can leave me with diverse feelings ranging from anger to sadness. I get tired of having these feelings. I get tired of wondering, why? So I made a very conscious decision to manage the display of my Blackness in the face of systemic and institutional racism.
Source: Ad

For one, I’m unapologetically Black. No I do not embody the stereotypically constructed image of the angry Black woman. This construction suggests that my anger is mis-placed and that I should be eternally grateful that I was given a chance to be in academia or any other majority White space. Being unapologetically Black means that I don’t apologize for anyone’s discomfort at my presence. It also means that I don’t pretend that Blackness does not mean something to both me and the person(s) that I happen to be occupying a specific space with at a specific time. For me, being unapologetically Black means that I don’t have to wear a mask; a mask that often hides mental illness, such as depression. I don’t go around crying “Woe is me”, but I also don’t hide the struggles that I often confront when I disrupt White spaces and resulting narratives. 

Second, I choose (within reason) when I want to be on public display. So there are some functions I simply don’t attend. Some might say that this is not collegial. Others might say, aren’t you afraid that you won’t get tenure. I’m tenured and even when I was not I made choices concerning the public display of my Blackness. This is about the exercise of my personal power. Nothing makes me feel worse than being disempowered. We all have to learn the unspoken and spoken “rules of the game” by which we are to be judged. However, these rules do not have t render us powerless. We can make choices. For every three events I’m invited to, I typically say no to two. I am able to do such, because I make trade-offs—I find other ways to engage in service to my institution where the display of my Blackness can be minimized and where I can also feel that I have some level of control over the display. One can be a team player and still have power.

Third, I’ve learn how to create safe spaces. Not safe spaces only in terms of physical space, but also in terms of mental space. It’s about transcending the boundaries in which I’m often confined. I do this by organizing my physical space to reflect who I am. Every small token counts! Again, I make no apologies for surrounding myself with Black art, etc. This physical space provides me with an opportunity to create the mental space I often need to manage the public display of my Blackness. When I can’t escape to my office, I escape via my mind. I fill my mind with stories of Black women who’ve “triumphed”. I surround myself with the stories of Audre Lorde, my mother and my grandmother. These are women who mother me through their narratives. I surround myself with Bible verses that help me to transcend to a space where I feel safe and secure.

Finally, self reflection is a constant part of my consciousness concerning the public display of my Blackness. Periodically, I ask myself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” Asking this question is relatively easy. The difficulty is in answering honestly. The tools I use for self reflection sometimes change. What remains constant is staying true to who I am regardless of the situation in which I find myself. I’ve found that some of us, particularly Black women, spend a considerable about of time trying to figure out how to fit in. As a result, we forget who we are and our purpose. We twist in the wind trying to embody other’s understanding of how we out to publicly perform our identity. After watching some women I know struggle with their presentation of self, I made a very conscious decision not to wear a mask. For example, I jokingly tell my students “I know that I’m Black, I’ve been Black for 21 years.” This is my attempt to openly address that fact that we are racialized beings and we can choose how we want our racialization to influence our interactions. Some students don’t always understand this, but I’ve found that being open allows me to publicly confront stereotypes and beliefs about my role in the classroom. When I first entered academia, I could not do this. In part, because of was afraid of the consequences. I took some time to reflect on my perceptions of the consequences of publicly recognizing my Blackness. Eventually, I concluded that while I could not control the consequences, there was one that I absolutely could not live with. I could not live with the consequence of denying how all of my identities interact and intersect to make me who I am. 

As a Black woman, not only do I struggle with the proverbial battle of self-identity, but I also struggle with other people's conceptions of who I am and how I should be. Black women are expected to be angry and loud or meek and subservient. I am neither. This often means that some folk literally don’t know what to do with me. I’ve disrupted their narratives by controlling, in a very honest way, the public display of my Blackness.  My toolbox is a constant work in progress as I seek tools to handle not only my understanding and performance of my Blackness in public spaces, but also for how others understand and expect me to perform such. 

This was first published at All Black Woman