by Mary Oishi
(Published in the February/March 2003 issue of The Burning Bush, feminist news & commentary for New Mexico.)
Since I am a Japanese American, people are shocked when I tell them that my adoptive mother was the daughter of KKK members. I grew up surrounded by white supremacists.
The cemetery in Pennsylvania where my adoptive dad is buried is replete with metal markers proudly proclaiming, “Royal Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The town where I attended elementary school had an ordinance until the late 1960’s prohibiting people of color from spending the night within the borough limits. I lived in an adjoining township, and rode a bus into town every day to attend school. In such a segregated environment, it is no wonder the kids on the bus shouted “Remember Pearl Harbor!” and pushed me out of bus seats and knocked books out of my arm and threw apples at me from behind. Everyone else in the entire school had one hundred percent European ancestry. It was not an easy place to grow up Japanese American: not at home or at school.
It has taken me decades to realize that, while the racism I grew up with was overt and difficult to deal with, everyone who grows up in the United States is raised with white supremacy, whether they know it or not. Like most Americans, I bought into the notion that white supremacy was the exclusive domain of the KKK, the Aryan Nation, and other hate groups. I have since come to recognize that those groups are merely a grotesque caricature of subtly pervasive racism. Their most important function is to provide an extreme that more educated and well-meaning people can point to and say, “Surely I’m not like them.” This perpetuates racism much more than the hate groups’ rhetoric could ever do, because the white supremacy we have all internalized never gets examined, named, and exorcized.
White supremacy is the bedrock on which this country was founded. The founding fathers borrowed wonderful egalitarian sentiments from the Iroquois Nation to craft our country’s ideals, but applied them only to white male property owners. Had the statement of ideals matched their actual beliefs, they would have written, “All wealthy white men like us are created equal.” The actions and words of the founding fathers outside of the Continental Congress do even more to show us the extent of their belief in white supremacy.
Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751 that since whites cleared America of its forests and thereby made it “reflect a brighter light…why should we…darken its people? Why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys [indigenous inhabitants of Asia and the Americas], of increasing the lovely White…”
It was not just the wealthy white males of the East and South who believed in white supremacy. A fraternal organization of California-born whites called the Sons of the Golden West, pledged themselves to preserve the state “as it has always been and God Himself intended it shall always be-the White Man’s Paradise.”
We can recognize what strides have been made since the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century, but we should not lull ourselves into believing that the foundation bedrock has shifted. Look at the current “fathers” of our nation: those with power in the federal government are still overwhelmingly wealthy white males. The few people of color who arrive in Congress or the Administration must embrace white supremacy with even more ardor than the whites themselves. They must aspire to the standard to which Colin Powell has “risen”: to the place where George Bush senior sometimes “forgets he is Black.” The alternative is to face so much opposition funding and false accusations that they lose their elections, like former Representative Cynthia McKinney, an African American from Georgia whose Blackness they could not “forget” for a moment. With our halls of representation filled with wealthy white males (and those who consistently acquiesce to and emulate wealthy white males), and our electoral process controlled and funded by wealthy white males, how can our representative democracy represent any interests other than those of wealthy white males? And so white supremacy is perpetuated and perpetually institutionalized. It reminds me of the Bruce Hornsby lyric, “That’s just the way it is-some things will never change.”
But the Civil Rights Movement has changed all that, right? Certainly those who worked and marched and laid down their lives to challenge this country to live up to its stated ideals believed that they could. The leaflets handed out to potential Black voters in the South during Freedom Summer were alive with hopeful verbs: we can, we will, we shall. A few landmark pieces of legislation and remedial policies came out of that Movement, chiefly the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, desegregation and affirmative action. When wealthy white supremacists fear that everything they have will be taken away, they make concessions-but they’re always temporary or able to be easily skirted when the pressure is off. Both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act had sunset clauses, meaning they were temporary measures that could later simply not be renewed.
Even though the Congress voted to temporarily renew the Voting Rights Act (Trent Lott’s vote to the contrary notwithstanding), denying suffrage to African Americans is effectively achieved in other ways. First, just deny the right to vote to any convicted felons. Then make racially disparate sentencing for far lesser offenses, more aggressively pursue lawbreakers in communities of color, and convict and imprison a disproportionate percentage of those arrested. Or, falsely supply names of convicted felons-mostly African Americans-to polling booth workers as Katherine Harris did in Florida in 2000. You can also intimidate and misinform voters of color of the election date, as was done in the 2002 election in Baltimore.
Desegregation of schools was simple to circumvent by whites re-segregating themselves into the suburbs or sending their children to private schools that are not subjected to such rulings. Since the Reagan years, school voucher proposals have been paraded out as benevolent choices for parents frustrated with the quality of their under-funded neighborhood schools, cleverly throwing a hood over a white supremacist agenda to again publicly fund segregated schools.
Whites charging reverse discrimination have continually challenged affirmative action. “Affirmative action,” in a manner of speaking, has always existed in this nation, except that prior to the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement it was always reserved for white males. Virtually all of the higher paying jobs and jobs with any prestige were set aside for them even if they were unqualified or incompetent, and while in those positions of power, they formed an “ole boy network,” continuing to fill all of their quotas with white males, generation after generation.
In the early 1990’s when I taught a career guidance course, I emphasized that very few people get jobs through the classified ads. Statistics bear this out. Most jobs are gotten by networking, or “who you know.” Statistics also bear this out. Since we had a system of affirmative action for white males for nearly two hundred years, it is hard for women and people of color to “network” their way into good jobs. Affirmative action is certainly less preferable than a society that would honestly hire based on a person’s qualifications regardless of race, gender, etc., but until every white male knows, is friends with, and respects as many men and women of color as they do other whites, the reality is that people of color will continue to be shut out of opportunities-absent the stop gap mandate of affirmative action. The steep decline in the number of students of color in the University of California system after affirmative action programs were ended bears this out. The same Supreme Court that overrode the electorate in 2000 has agreed to hear a case challenging affirmative action. We could well see the end of this hard-won (if imperfect) policy early in the twenty-first century. If so, it will be back to the unwritten policy of affirmative action for whites only once again.
So how do we get to the near-utopian society of our stated ideals? I believe the keys lie in our education and our religious/sacred imagery. It would certainly require a complete reorienting of our Euro-centered (read: white supremacist) American-style education. As it stands now, we have Black History Month and a few minority studies here and there on the periphery of our educational institutions, but American children, no matter their heritage, learn from early childhood to revere the thoughts, lives, and deeds of white people as the only ones that really matter. I was an adult, for example, before I learned that it was Japanese women who invented the novel as an art form. Every novel I read in elementary school (and in all but one minority literature class in high school) was written exclusively by a writer of European descent. What would knowing that a person like me wrote the very first novel have done to counteract what I was experiencing on the bus and playground? What would it have done for my harassers? This is one small example of how an educational system permeated with white supremacy damages the perceptions of both white children and children of color. There will be no fundamental or lasting positive changes until eleven months out of every year cease to be exclusively White History Month.
With the exception of the Virgen de Guadalupe, our religious and “sacred” images are also thoroughly white supremacist, including the worship of America’s colonial and historical icons such as those on our currency-and even Santa Claus. It is no doubt a completely guileless act for a Christian mother to hang a portrait of a blonde Jesus in her living room, but it sends a strong, subliminal and repetitious white supremacist message to every member of her household and to every guest. The fundamental power of this cannot be overstated. If God’s son is white, God is white. God is also all-powerful and all good and all wise. What does that imply for whiteness? For non-whiteness? Will she or her husband or children, with this image burned deeply into their psyche, ever once ponder that the real Jesus was an indigenous Middle-Easterner, no doubt darker than most people of Middle Eastern descent whom they may encounter after the Diaspora? Will children who grow up with this image ever consider how, if the Gospel account is accurate, spending the formative years of his childhood exiled in Africa may have given him multicultural perspective and insight?
These questions of the effects of sacred imagery are important because from our sense of the sacred, whether religious or secularly mythological, come our attitudes and values, from which spring our speech and behaviors. If we ask people to change the latter without changing the former, we ultimately engender only backlash against “political correctness” and affirmative action. At best we may get begrudging compliance because a deep-seated belief in the sacred right and rightness of white supremacy has not been uprooted.
When I was in Durban, South Africa as a delegate to the UN World Conference Against Racism, a street merchant of Indian descent asked me what things are really like in the United States pertaining to racism. When I told him about racial profiling and police brutality and the high percentage of African American males either dead or in prison by the time they’re thirty and that far fewer Latinos than whites are given pain medication to have broken bones reset and about the insidious environmental racism on Indian reservations and in other communities of color, etc., etc., he shook his head. Then, very matter-of-factly, he said, “Sounds like you need to overthrow your white people like we did here.” I burst out laughing. Actually, I agree with Audre Lorde that we cannot tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools, so I am not advocating taking his advice. But rest assured that the extent to which his statement sounded preposterous to you (as it did to me) is the extent to which white supremacy is entrenched in this country. And you may find, upon consideration, that you too were raised by white supremacists.
Vicente ” Panama” Alba
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“if you tremble with indignation at every injustice
then you are comrade of mine.”
“Let’s be realistic, let’s do the impossible”
Ernesto “Che” Guevara
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
– Frederick Douglass –
Action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel.
Justice in the World – 1971 Synod of Bishops