Racism from Top to Bottom

It was a beautiful winter morning in North Carolina. I had just met George Friday, an African American friend and sister, at a restaurant in Chapel Hill, Breadmans, to start planning follow-up from an excellent national meeting we had both helped to organize in Atlanta, Ga. the weekend before. At that meeting plans were developed by people from about a dozen groups and 10 states around the country to unfold a 2004 Racism Watch campaign.

The restaurant was very full, so we were sitting at a not-in-use bar just next to where we had checked in, waiting until a table opened up. All of a sudden a middle-aged white man who we later learned is the owner comes out from the kitchen and asks us if everything was O.K. George responded, yes, we’re just waiting until a table opens up, we’ve informed the appropriate people, and if there is anything you could do to make sure we’re not forgotten we’d appreciate it. Then, to our great surprise, this guy takes George’s response as somehow problematic and, within 15 seconds, he has come to where we are sitting, leaned over and gotten into George’s face and is acting as if she had called him something terrible, which she hadn’t.

I immediately spoke up, asked him what was his problem, and the next thing I remember he has come around from behind the bar and was demanding we leave, that if we don’t he is going to call the police. We do leave, saying loudly for all to hear something like, “If you’re black you better watch out in this restaurant.”

We go to another restaurant and try to get over this clearly racist verbal assault and back to the reason we were meeting. As we begin to do so, we see a progressive lawyer we both know. When he comes over to say hi and we tell him what has happened, he tells us that he has been to court against this guy for a similar experience a black woman had had with him. We talk for a while about the continuing problem of white supremacy very alive and well in the South, and elsewhere.

Finally, we get back to the important task at hand, discussing follow up to make 2004 Racism Watch an important short-term and long-term effort.

But this wasn’t the end of my unplanned discussions about racism. Later in the day, speaking with a leader of the Student Environmental Action Coalition, he tells me about problems they have had with certain environmental groups working on the critically-important issue of global warming who are opposed to efforts SEAC is making to link that issue to issues of environmental justice for communities of color. These groups don’t seem to get that it is communities of color, in this country and worldwide, who are being most negatively affected by our fossil fuel-based economy and who will be most negatively affected by the disruption of the earth’s ecology if we do not rapidly move to clean and sustainable sources of energy.

But it’s not just that. This is a very practical strategy question. How can we hope to win on this critical clean energy issue without significant support from the roughly
1/3 of the U.S. population who are either indigenous or are of African, Asian, Central or South American descent?

Let’s face reality: the vast majority of explicitly progressive groups, on a wide range of issues, are predominantly white, as in 90% or more. This is true despite the fact that, on almost every issue, people of color generally are much more progressive than white Americans. Indeed, it is probably the case that the constituency for an explicitly progressive-as opposed to reactionary or timidly moderate-politics is 50% or more of color.

One last example of what we’re up against: this morning a friend and co-worker who is actually pretty anti-racist in his consciousness and actions used the phrase, “the pot calling the kettle black” in an email he sent out to an email list I’m on. As I said in an email I sent back, there’s a lot of the English language that has racist connotations that I think we need to help each other identify and stop using. “The pot calling the kettle black,” in my opinion, is one of them.

From top to bottom, from the personal to the macro-political, we have a long way to go. Let’s make 2004 a year that we significantly advance the struggle for full-fledged equality and justice and a genuinely multi-cultural independent progressive movement. It will only happen if those of us of European descent take seriously, at all levels, the pervasive impact of the poisonous disease of white supremacy.