Posted by: MC | July 1, 2013

The VRA and Racism “the country’s original sin”

marching-for-the-right-to-vote 1965

What a week.

With a 68-32  margin, the U.S. Senate passed immigration reform – a heartening step even in the face of the subsequent response by the usual suspects in the House of Representatives rolling their eyes and offering sound bites that essentially communicate (again…), “in your dreams.”  In what likely stands as a more inspiring demonstration (and interpretation) of democratic action, Texas Senator, Wendy Davis together with thousands of citizens of that state, asserted their right to voice to prevent by filibuster the passage of a state bill that would seriously compromise women’s rights to make choices with regard to their bodies.  Then there were the weather circumstances in the southwestern US yesterday:

I mention the latter because it’s easy to miss with all the other news.  This version of climate change is also a pretty apt metaphor here as things are heating up.

Central in this week’s wave of change are the decisions handed down by the US Supreme Court.  In three of the decisions set forward this week by the country’s highest court there is one that recognizes the dignity of love and its validation in marriage without regard to the claimed or designated gender of the people marrying.  This is a step forward.  Two more decisions are enormous steps back.  First, is the decision to severely impair the rights of Native American families and communities to ensure their children are most likely to be fostered with or adopted by other Native American families.  Then there’s the vote to remove near-50-year-old protections for voting access – voting being lynchpin to democracy.

All three of these deserve great attention – great listening on the part of the citizens who share this country.  The decisions have significant overlap, most obviously in their shared status as powerful public policy directly affecting historically marginalized people.

On his press review/comedy show, Bill Maher referred specifically to the severe hit taken by voting rights protections.  He made a very explicit tie when he commented, “I think the big fault line in this country is race, that’s the original sin.”  Maher went on to explain the origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Bill – the fact that sleazy voting restrictions aimed at preventing African Americans and other historically marginalized people from voting were well documented in specific states – lots in the South but plenty farther north – e.g., boroughs in New York City, areas of Wisconsin.

Maher read the words of the majority decision penned by Justice Roberts who noted his incredulity at the possibility that the nation wishes to say the people of the South are more racist than the people of the North is a worthy observation.  The racism, as the justice’s comments can be taken to indicate, is as profound in the North as in the South – it’s just covered with look good.  Back in the late 80’s I worked here in Portland, Oregon with a head start principal, an African American woman also from Texas.  In my brief time in Oregon I had noticed big differences in the way I was able to connect with African American people here.  She explained it for me – “It’s like in the North.  You just can’t tell here.”  She went on to describe how, in the South you can tell right away who to avoid – who the crazy racist white people are – but up here they’re still around and just as dangerous (just check out Oregon history), but they’re not as obvious.  “You withhold,” she said, “You wait to see.  And since you know it’s the safest way to go, you can wait a long time.”

So, the expression is still different, but the limitation is only slightly less in the Northern/Western and often urban realms of “look-good white person” racism.

Here’s the point – ours remains an immediately racist, sexist and classist country.  These biases are expressed by adults and learned all-too-quickly by children and they insinuate themselves into everyone.  The only way they can be addressed is if they are first seen.

Check this out as a rather excruciating example.  It seems to me that the extent to which any person’s dignity is acknowledged or graded on the vastly enculturated scale of significance to insignificance is determined within the first few seconds of any encounter.  There is a man walking down my street right now.  An urban street.  He is wearing brown.  He is white and in his mid-thirties, early-forties He has on a brown fedora.  I can’t see his shoes.  It is Sunday in Portland, Oregon.  He is carrying a small paper bag that looks just filled at one of the local grocery outlets.  As I look at him from my living room where I sit with my laptop – me a white woman in her 50’s, a professional (i.e., a person who’s had access) – he gets a to slightly above middle dignity rating.

I don’t like that this is easy.  Try it.  It’s way too easy.

Then there was the situation in the courtroom where scrutiny is happening with regard to 19-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death.  Last week, a white lawyer, roughly two rungs above the guy in the brown fedora when it comes to unconscious dignity awards, aggressively questioned Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s teenage friend. “Did you call the police?” he probed, employing the rather bald-faced superior rhetoric implying idiocy if she didn’t.  Jeantel’s reply held the deepest of truth.  In essence she responded that people like her don’t call the police, they avoid the police.  It’s not because Jeantel’s done anything wrong – it’s because at the intersection of race and class the way the world works is completely different from anything that lawyer knows.  Of course she didn’t call the police (please see Danielle Cadet’s blog on this interaction).  The police are not empowering, ennobling or even benignly tolerant of people who fall like Jeantel into the lower quadrants of the unconscious and deeply enculturated levying of dignity.

Arguably, Jeantel’s not turning to authority as recognized by the dominant system can be seen as deep internalization of the oppression that defines dominant-culture allotments of dignity.  There is likely something to this.  The people most harmed by such systems end up participating in them – most usually for safety.  This is something I can do, for example, in conversations of professional consequence when I watch and do nothing as powerful men ignore and then a short time later repeat my contributions as their own.  The stakes in my situation are not nearly as high, but the studied passivity reflects the same impulse. [Consider Cadet’s references to “code switching”]

But the realities of internalized oppression slightly aside, Jeantel’s response to the lawyer also gave voice to her most essential dignity – dignity that no one may ever take away – dignity that arises from the mandate that goes deeper than any worldview indoctrinated by any prevailing dominant group – the dignity that arises from being born into a human body and thus charged with its care and survival.

And this is the dignity that the 48-year-old Voting Rights Act, even with its noted and debated foibles, offered some modicum of support.

Maybe the Act does need revision since there is no refuting the stunning interference with voting that has occurred over the past 15 years.  So this move by SCOTUS gives us all yet another opportunity to revisit our fear of recognizing dignity and the way that fear is reflected in or moderated by public policy.  It gives us another opportunity to listen to each other – yep, to listen!  And to pay attention to the ways our listening supports or shuts down the essential dignity of any living person.

It’s not minor, this opportunity.  And brave people like Rachel Jeantel can help us see (and hear) the way forward.


  1. I love it when you get pissed off MC. I grew up in upper middle class, when there was such a thing. With all my experiences seeing exactly what you have pointed out; I got on a Harley instead of marrying a Ferrari. My lucid choice. Coming into community here in PDX, I was walked to my car by the exact hidden crazy, except this person was highly respected and influential in the community… I was dubbed insignificant without access. It is easy to hide within the insignificant and bait traps… Deception. It comes down to Deception within the passive aggressive behavior meets Inspiration, a personal human cure. “I don’t like that this is easy. Try it. It’s way too easy.”
    You inspire me MC.

  2. “The only way they can be addressed is if they are first seen.” Yes, and understood for what they are. This is the very difficult and distressing part, because as you so clearly lay out, most of our learning has been polluted. We’ve unlearned the use of language to clarify, and replaced that purpose with obfuscation and obscuring. A kind of perverted tolerance for untruth has been our reward. Witness how our systems decry socio-economic bifurcation while perpetuating it with a vengeance. We become our own enemy out of fear. Is it possible, for example, that “occupy” voices have quieted for fear of losing what little is left? And in that, do we participate in co-opting what resources, dignity, and positive identity we are still able to recognize as our own so that they become, to borrow from Danielle Cadet’s train of thought, unrecognizable in others?

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