A Q&A with Judge Nelson A. Diaz

This week in North Philly Notes, an interview with Nelson A. Diaz, about his inspiring new autobiography, Not from Here, Not from There.

You came to America as a child—literally—in your mother’s belly. Can you discuss the experience of being part of the wave of Puerto Rican immigrants post-World War II?
During the 1940’s and 1950’s, many Puerto Ricans came to New York in search of greater job opportunities because the economic hardships confronting Puerto Rico after WWII. My mother came to New York to provide a better life for me. She was a woman who was ahead of her time because she was a working mom at a time when most mothers stayed at home with their children. She did not have a choice. She worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet. Although I grew up in very humble circumstances, my mother always provided the example of love, hard work, and faith. The Marine Tiger where she landed was a famous ship used in WWII for transport of soldiers and many came to the shores of NY the same way having American citizenship since 1917. Public Policy in the availability of Public Housing made a major difference in our lives.

You grew up in Harlem and had some hardscrabble experiences. What was that period of your life like?  You talk about being in fear at age 15. What helped you get through that time and not just survive, but thrive?
Growing up in poverty does not give you many options. Violence, gangs, and drugs are all around. I had a lot of problems in school much of which stemmed from my inability to speak and read in both English and Spanish. Trying to live in two different worlds – Puerto Rican culture and American culture – was difficult. I was not doing well in school and was always struggling to get better grades. At the age of 15, I went from being a D student to an A student in one year through the saving grace of the church.

Through faith, I felt hope. Hope for my future, an expectation that better things lied ahead and a strong desire to work hard for it. Through faith, I no longer felt unworthy and I knew that I could achieve greater things, not only for myself but also for others. The intervention of people in my life made a difference.

Not From Here_smYou faced considerable discrimination in Philadelphia (e.g., passing the bar). Was there a particular experience that made you learn and grow?
Growing up as a poor Puerto Rican kid from Harlem, I always had to overcome the barriers of stereotypical attitudes: a school counselor who believes that you are not college material, or institutional or systemic bias in law schools and government, or law firms and corporate boards that lack diversity even though there are highly qualified people of color. That is why civil and human rights are important issues that I have spent my life fighting for. I have spent a lifetime breaking barriers so others can walk through the doors—whether it was becoming a founding member of Black Law Students Association and the Federation of Puerto Rican Students because I understood the power of coalitions of interest; or becoming a community activist to protest the lack of diversity and open up law school doors for others; or promoting economic development in the Latino community; or becoming the first Puerto Rican White House Fellow, where I worked for Vice President Mondale and was able to promote Latino diversity in the political arena and influence public policy both domestically and internationally; or becoming the first Latino judge in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; or becoming the first minority administrative judge and presiding over court reforms that brought seven years of backlogged cases to the present and saved the courts millions of dollars; or fighting for the human rights of Soviet Jews; or becoming the first American judge to sit on a Japanese Court; or fighting against segregation in housing nationwide; or promoting the inclusion and promotion of minority and women lawyers in the profession; or fighting for diversity on corporate boards. I may have been the first, but I did not want to be the last!

The history of anyone but Caucasian who had passed the Pennsylvania Bar demonstrates that until the Liacouras Bar Committee found discrimination in the Bar exam the Commonwealth of PA since its founding, the bar had only admitted 67 African Americas and no Latinos before 1969 when I entered Law School. It was apparent that it was impossible to believe that I might get admitted and the city was so segregated by neighborhoods with continuous racial conflict between neighborhood boundaries.

Eventually, your career took off with appointments as the General Counsel at HUD, and as a city solicitor who helped with immigration issues. Can you describe your experiences?
The White House Fellows program gave me an education on the world and lifted my profile in my professional life.  The Judicial appointment and election also changed the public perspective of me. Both of these appointments, including the Administrative Judge title, were avenues of increasing diversity in the workplace. Although I was flattered to have been asked to by Henry Cisneros, who is a trailblazer and friend, to become his General Counsel at HUD, I did not want to go to Washington, DC. Henry was persistent and I eventually agreed. By breaking another barrier—becoming the first minority General Counsel—I was determined to increase the numbers of minority and women lawyers hired, retained and promoted because of the shocking lack of diversity among the government attorneys. I have always felt that the inclusion of minorities and women is an important step to changing systemic bias that exists in most institutions. As Latinos, we need to select our own leaders and continue to help each other climb the ladder of success.

Your book’s title is curious, it suggests a lack of belonging. Can you discuss that?
The title of my book, “I am not from here and I am not from there/No soy de aqui, ni de alla,” is about being a Puerto Rican born and raised in New York. We are not accepted here because of stereotypes and prejudice and yet not accepted as Puerto Rican from the Islanders because we were born in the States. It begs the question so where do we belong? That is a difficult barrier to overcome. You continue striving for excellence, inclusion, and moving the agenda forward so there is equality for all. There are many examples of rejection on both sides of the Atlantic both professionally and community where Puerto Ricans resided.

My parents lived most of their lives in Puerto Rico while I lived all of my life in the United States. I visited regularly since the age of 10 was educated in the issues of both countries, despite my professional capacity and assistance was there rarely an opinion they sought or cared particularly as you can see from the major Hurricane Maria. When they used my help it was limited to educate their officials and not my expertise which normally was ignored. That never gave me pause to keep trying wherever possible.

Do you think you achieved the American Dream?
Latinos positively contribute to the wellbeing of this great country. My story demonstrates some of the many ways, Latinos contribute to America. I hope that this book is seen in a bigger context than just my story. In the backdrop of the negative and racist attitudes about Latinos being only “criminals and rapists” my story is one of many, Latinos who work hard every day to put food on the table, house their families as best as they can and educate their children to have equal opportunities for the future. Isn’t that what everyone wants – the American Dream? History has eliminated most of our contribution and we fail to tell the story of how we have made America better.  My book will hopefully inspire young people to strive for a better life.

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Temple University Press Titles the Organization of American Historians Conference

This week in North Philly Notes, we highlight the books and authors at the Organization for American Historians Conference, April 12-14 in Sacramento, CA.

Visit us at Booth #210!
Titles on Display include:

Healing Our Divided Society_smHealing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years after the Kerner Report, edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis.

This timely volume unites the interests of minorities and white working- and middle-class Americans to propose a strategy to reduce poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. Reflecting on America’s urban climate today, this new report sets forth evidence-based policies concerning employment, education, housing, neighborhood development, and criminal justice based on what has been proven to work-and not work.

“A Road to Peace and Freedom”:  The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954by Robert M. Zecker

A Road to Peace and Freedom_smMining extensive primary sources, Robert Zecker gives voice to the workers in “A Road to Peace and Freedom.” He describes the International Workers Order’s economic goals, commitment to racial justice, and activism, from lobbying to end segregation and lynching in America to defeating fascism abroad. Zecker also illustrates the panoply of entertainment, sports, and educational activities designed to cultivate the minds and bodies of members.

Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century, by Rachel Ida Buff

Buff approved 032017.inddDespite being characterized as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has seen a long history of immigrant rights struggles. In her timely book Against the Deportation Terror, Rachel Ida Buff uncovers this multiracial history. She traces the story of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born (ACPFB) from its origins in the 1930s through repression during the early Cold War, to engagement with “new” Latinx and Caribbean immigrants in the 1970s and early 1980s. By tracing the work of the ACPFB and its allies over half a century, Against the Deportation Terror provides important historical precedent for contemporary immigrant rights organizing. Its lessons continue to resonate today.

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On the Stump: Campaign Oratory and Democracy in the United States, Britain, and Australia, by Sean Scalmer

Scalmer_6 x 9_new ST_030717.indd“Stumping,” or making political speeches in favor of a candidate, cause, or campaign has been around since before the 1800s, when speechmaking was frequently portrayed as delivered from the base of a tree. The practice, which has been strongly associated with the American frontier, British agitators, and colonial Australia, remains an effective component of contemporary democratic politics. In his engaging book On the Stump, Sean Scalmer provides the first comprehensive, transnational history of the “stump speech.” He traces the development and transformation of campaign oratory, as well as how national elections and public life and culture have been shaped by debate over the past century.

Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment, by Harold L. Platt

Sinking ChicagoSMIn Sinking Chicago, Harold Platt shows how people responded to climate change in one American city over a hundred-and-fifty-year period. During a long dry spell before 1945, city residents lost sight of the connections between land use, flood control, and water quality. Then, a combination of suburban sprawl and a wet period of extreme weather events created damaging runoff surges that sank Chicago and contaminated drinking supplies with raw sewage. Chicagoans had to learn how to remake a city built on a prairie wetland. Sinking Chicago lays out a roadmap to future planning outcomes.

Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation,” by J. Mark Souther

Believing in Cleveland_smSouther explores Cleveland’s downtown revitalization efforts, its neighborhood renewal and restoration projects, and its fight against deindustrialization. He shows how the city reshaped its image when it was bolstered by sports team victories. But Cleveland was not always on the upswing. Souther places the city’s history in the postwar context when the city and metropolitan area were divided by uneven growth. In the 1970s, the city-suburb division was wider than ever.  Believing in Cleveland recounts the long, difficult history of a city that entered the postwar period as America’s sixth largest, then lost ground during a period of robust national growth.

Constructing the Patriarchal City: Gender and the Built Environments of London, Dublin, Toronto and Chicago, 1870s into the 1940s, by Maureen A. Flanagan

Flanagan_to AMA_062217.inddConstructing the Patriarchal City compares the ideas and activities of men and women in four English-speaking cities that shared similar ideological, professional, and political contexts. Historian Maureen Flanagan investigates how ideas about gender shaped the patriarchal city as men used their expertise in architecture, engineering, and planning to fashion a built environment for male economic enterprise and to confine women in the private home. Women consistently challenged men to produce a more equitable social infrastructure that included housing that would keep people inside the city, public toilets for women as well as men, housing for single, working women, and public spaces that were open and safe for all residents.

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Revisiting The Kerner Report, 50 Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, we look at the Kerner Report 50 years later, and our new book,  Healing Our Divided Society edited by Fred Harris and Alan Curtis. 

Following the terrible summer of 1967 disorders in many American cities, like Detroit and Newark, then-President Lyndon Johnson appointed a bipartisan citizens investigative commission, the Kerner Commission, to analyze the sources of unrest and propose solutions.

On February 29, 1968, the Commission issued its historic report which concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

The Commission recommended significant, long run federal government-led progress in reducing poverty, income inequality, wealth inequality and racial injustice in America.

Healing Our Divided Society_smHealing Our Divided Society is a fifty year update of the Kerner Commission, a kind of Kerner Report 2.0, edited by Fred Harris, former U.S. Senator and the last surviving member of the Commission, and Alan Curtis, President of Eisenhower Foundation, the private sector continuation of the Commission—along with contributions by a 23-member National Advisory Council of distinguished Americans, including Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, and Stanford University Professor Emeritus and Learning Policy Institute President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond.

“In Healing Our Divided Society,” writes former Secretary of State John Kerry,” Senator Harris and Dr. Curtis have curated brilliant pieces authored by a diverse group of respected experts and activists, to examine the places we’ve gone wrong and wrestle with what we must do to live up to the promise of our country, and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.”

Occupied by the Vietnam War and concerned about the legacy of his domestic policy, President Johnson rejected the “two societies” warning.  But leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy strongly endorsed the Kerner Report in 1968.

Since then, Healing Our Divided Society concludes that there has been only some progress, much of it in the late 1960s and in the 1970s—yet we have learned what works and must assemble “new will” among a broad-based coalition of Americans to legislate a better life for the poor, working class and middle class of all races in the nation.

Over the 50 years since the Kerner Commission, we have elected an African-American president.  There has been an increase in the number of other African-American and Hispanic/Latino elected officials and an expansion of the African-American and Hispanic/Latino middle class.

Yet there has not been nearly enough progress, and, in some ways, things have gotten no better or have gotten worse over the last 50 years.

Brazil Heads Toward 2018: Originalities and Tendencies

This week in North Philly Notes, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens a dispatch on Brazil’s anti-corruption campaign and next election.

Brazil’s ongoing investigations into corruption have been discussed with a certain sense of national pride, that they may offer something in the way of originality. The targets are white collar criminals in high places of government and the economy. Everybody knows there will be more revelations, arrests and indictments of political and business leaders that will continue to scandalize voter citizens. The judiciary remains diligently engaged in uncovering and prosecuting the guilty within the framework of law and established democratic institutions. It’s an effort to discover crime and punish the guilty carried through WITHOUT THE USE of exceptional powers of which there are few examples in history, certainly none in Brazilian history.

Are there other Brazilian originalities? President Michel Temer heads a conservative government that responds to wishes of entrepreneurial much more than labor groups. The former want more flexibility in hiring and laying off workers, outsourcing, etc. With Temer’s encouragement, the Brazilian congress revised parts of the 1943 Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT). The CLT had acquired an almost sacrosanct status. Some of it is imbedded in the 1988 constitution. It served workers, employers and Brazil well during periods of economic growth, and economic turmoil. However, the Temer government now argued that changes were necessary, that the CLT needed to be modernized in order to satisfy domestic and foreign investors. It was necessary to break away from the bondage of bureaucracy and labor courts where workers bring thousands of suits each year against employers. Changes to the CLT enacted in 2017 were hailed with government fanfare. But there is also resistance to applying them led by labor court judges, lawyers practicing labor law, and labor law intellectuals. Labor law is a major area of Brazilian jurisprudence. The labor courts or Justiça do Trabalho are organized in a national system with regional tribunals. Critics of the changes argue that important principles protecting workers present in the constitution, obviously inspired by the CLT, cannot be modified by simple legislation. A new collective bargain agreement cannot leave workers worse off in benefits, working conditions, and salaries. Courts will be deciding these issues. A young Brazilian lawyer said to me, “No country has the kind of labor law and labor courts that we have.”

Layout 1Yet another originality, or at least unusual, is the system of election courts (tribuna eleitoral) which like labor courts are organized throughout the country in regional jurisdictions. There is a supreme court. In 2017, its members in sharply divided opinions voted 3 to 2 not to cancel the candidacy, and therefore of election of Michel Temer as Vice-President in 2014. Among the charges against him: Accepting illegal campaign contributions. While Temer survived, other executive branch office holders have not. In 2017, the judiciary has removed on average one mayor a week on charges of corruption.

Of corse, there are ways in which Brazil stands alone, or nearly alone in disrepute. Brazil has greater socio-economic inequality than any Latin American republic as measured in income distribution. The issue goes beyond Brazil’s standing in Latin America. Brazil belongs to a small group of countries that include Middle Eastern oil states, and the Union of S. Africa as examples of extreme inequality. New studies by both foreign and Brazilian researchers have focused on this issue, putting it in the spotlight of public discussion. One study compares bolsa familia or family grant program with investments in public education and asks how much each might reduce inequality. The conclusion: Both contribute, but investments in public education contribute more to reduce inequality. While the Temer government continues to proclaim its support for bolsa familia, it has cut support for education, and otherwise largely ignored mass anxieties. Another study by Irish economist Marc Morgan, a member of the Thomas Piketty, CAPITALISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY research group, produced the conclusion that if the annual income of the top 1% of the richest 10% of Brazilians, a group of 140,000 people, was reduced to that of the top 1% in France and Japan, and the money transferred to the poorest 50% of Brazilians, their income would nearly double. This is a striking demonstration of how low is the income of the bottom 50% of the population. The income of poor Brazilians, and for that matter a large portion of the Brazilian middle class is in fact very low both by world and Latin American standards. The income of the 80% of the Brazilian population below the top 20% is comparable to the poorest 20% in contemporary France. Low income helps explain why people in Rio de Janeiro are not riding a new Metro subway line in expected numbers. A preference for riding busses continues though surely not because the trip takes longer, and can be far less comfortable than the Metro. However, bus fare is R$3.60 while the Metro charges R$4.10 a ride. The difference is 50 centavos or about 16 cents which nonetheless represents an all-important difference for low income riders. Moving up to the richest 10% of Brazilian households does not mean immediately moving from low to high income. Entry into this group begins at 4,500 reais per month or about US$1,500.

The issue of high cost and low quality bus transportation remains a source of intense public dissatisfaction in many large Brazilian cities. Some of the blame can surely be placed on corrupt ties between bus owners and local politicians. The facts and dimension of this corruption are not fully known. However, a Federal police investigation in Rio de Janeiro—Operation Final Stop—culminated in August, 2017 with the announcement that R$500 million reais (about US$175 million) in bribes had been paid by bus owners to former governor Sérgio Cabral (in office from 2007 to 2013, but now serving a lengthy jail term for corruption) in exchange for higher fares, and other favors such as suppressing freelance van competition. However, bus riders are finally getting some relief. This discovery of large bribes paid by bus owners to politicians led to a judge to lower fares. The Federal police, a zealous army of young federal prosecutors, and a growing group of determined, well prepared judges are acting against white collar crime in an ever widening gyre of investigations, arrests, indictments and punishments.

Meanwhile, public security continues in a state of crisis in many areas of Brazil. I can attest to this in my Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Leme. A Sunday in October saw an invasion of the nearby hillside favela of Babilonia by drug traffickers with a noisy exchange of gunfire. A group of Sunday visitors walking up the winding road of the nearby Duque de Caxias army base heard a soldier explain how the clearly audible gunfire was coming from both automatic rifles and hand guns. He added the army could stop the wars in the favelas in a week—there are conflicts in several of them between different drug gang factions–but the politicians won’t allow it. Too much money “esta rolando” or turning over. These are declarations the public is ready to hear and endorse.

Public security budgets have been cut since the great Brazilian recession of 2015. Gangsters or bandidos as Brazilians call them have been emboldened, and the police less and less able to respond. The violence often seems unchecked, and receives ample media coverage.  Public security has always been a leading issue on any list in which the public is polled. Brazil leads the world in number of homicides. The official count was 61,619 in 2016, and includes people murdered by the police. The crisis in public security more than any other issue will test the mettle of presidential candidates in the 2018 election.

As Brazilians approach 2018, they are processing new information about democracy and the rule of law under the socially progressive Constitution of 1988. Thirty or forty years ago, the leading issue was how to pay the tremendous social debt defined as raising the poor out of destitution and poverty. Now it is confronting white collar crime. There is consensus that the investigation and punishment of corrupt actors will continue. Otherwise what should be done, and is likely to shape the coming 2018 election ferment can be best observed by following the broad range of public and media discussion, and the actions of groups throughout Brazil ranging from landless rural and homeless urban workers to wealthy investors creating funds such as Vox Capital, a new fund with social impact ambitions led by Antônio Ermírio Moraes Neto, an heir to the Votorantim group, Brazil’s (and Latin America’s) largest industrial conglomerate. An example of Vox Capital funding is for production of a low cost respirator with easy maintenance requirements for ambulances and hospitals.  The idea of investing with social impacts in mind is said to be new in Brazil. A Brazilian banker explained: “In my 20 years in banking, I never had clients disposed to link the social with the financial.  They want to make money.” But Brazilians are always open to new ideas, and the appeal of the ethical is in ascendance.

Risking Life and Lens

This week in North Philly Notes, Helen M. Stummer, author of Risking Life and Lens, provides her artist statement and a few images from her exhibit at the New Jersey Historical Society that runs through June 24.  

This exhibit is a small selection from the large body of work I have created over the past four decades as a social documentary photographer and visual sociologist.

I began my career as a painter. I loved to paint, but when I enrolled in a class at the International Center of Photography in my early thirties only planning to learn how to use my camera better, I became involved photographing the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was what the New York Times then called one of the meanest areas in America. “If you don’t take a risk you will never do anything meaningful” became my mantra.

Stummer_fig3.26

Woman Carrying Water Home, Guatemala, 1997

France Under bridge Paris copy

Man Living Under Bridge, Paris, France, 2000

E 6th St NYC Manicure Shirley & her twins 11_22_1978 file 104 fr#31e104

Giving Mommy a Manicure, 1978

Maine Ellen Rocking Jimmy Maine. 1989 jpg

Ellen Rocking Jimmy, 1989

stummer-helen_James on Stairwell

James on the Stairs at 322, 1994

Driven out by drug dealers after four years, I went on to photograph mostly in the Central Ward of Newark, and became involved with the struggles of local residents addressing injustice in education, health, housing and police practices. I befriended several families, seeing many of their children grow up and have children of their own. During those years, I also worked in rural Maine, Guatemala, and France with a large organization, Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E), in the fight against poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

Risking Life and Lens_smRisking Life and Lens takes the reader/viewer through many of my own experiences and challenges, as well as the everyday stories that residents shared with me. I was there to learn and to witness without judging, striving to capture the innate qualities of dignity, spirit and elegance of people living amidst suffering and devastation. Their grief and anger at the world’s injustice could not erase their grace and humanity, and that left a mark on my camera and my heart.

Nelson Mandela said that poverty is man-made and therefore can be unmade. It makes no more sense to think that someone living in a so-called “bad neighborhood” is a bad person than to assume someone who lives in a “good neighborhood” is a good person. We see so much change happening in suddenly “desirable” urban environments, but a civilized society, if it is to survive, has to offer opportunity that includes and fulfills the needs of all people.

Helen M. Stummer

Dear White America

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Look, a White! author George Yancy’s provocative New York Times Opinionator blog from December 24, 2015 entitled, “Dear White America.”

Look a Whitesm

In 2015, I conducted a series of 19 interviews with philosophers and public intellectuals on the issue of race. My aim was to engage, in this very public space, with the often unnamed elephant in the room.

These discussions helped me, and I hope many of our readers, to better understand how race continues to function in painful ways within our country. That was one part of a gift that I wanted to give to readers of The Stone, the larger philosophical community, and the world.

The interviewees themselves — bell hooks, Cornel West, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, David H. Kim, Molefi Kete Asante among them — came from a variety of racial backgrounds, and their concerns and positions were even more diverse. But on the whole I came to see these interviews as linked by a common thread: They were messages to white America — because they often directly expressed the experience of those who live and have lived as people of color in a white-run world, and that is something no white person could ever truly know firsthand.

That is how I want to deliver my own message now.

Dear White America,

I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.

We don’t talk much about the urgency of love these days, especially within the public sphere. Much of our discourse these days is about revenge, name calling, hate, and divisiveness. I have yet to hear it from our presidential hopefuls, or our political pundits. I don’t mean the Hollywood type of love, but the scary kind, the kind that risks not being reciprocated, the kind that refuses to flee in the face of danger. To make it a bit easier for you, I’ve decided to model, as best as I can, what I’m asking of you. Let me demonstrate the vulnerability that I wish you to show. As a child of Socrates, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, let me speak the truth, refuse to err on the side of caution.

This letter is a gift for you. Bear in mind, though, that some gifts can be heavy to bear. You don’t have to accept it; there is no obligation. I give it freely, believing that many of you will throw the gift back in my face, saying that I wrongly accuse you, that I am too sensitive, that I’m a race hustler, and that I blame white people (you) for everything.

I have read many of your comments. I have even received some hate mail. In this letter, I ask you to look deep, to look into your souls with silence, to quiet that voice that will speak to you of your white “innocence.” So, as you read this letter, take a deep breath. Make a space for my voice in the deepest part of your psyche. Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not.

What if I told you that I’m sexist? Well, I am. Yes. I said it and I mean just that. I have watched my male students squirm in their seats when I’ve asked them to identify and talk about their sexism. There are few men, I suspect, who would say that they are sexists, and even fewer would admit that their sexism actually oppresses women. Certainly not publicly, as I’ve just done. No taking it back now.

To make things worse, I’m an academic, a philosopher. I’m supposed to be one of the “enlightened” ones. Surely, we are beyond being sexists. Some, who may genuinely care about my career, will say that I’m being too risky, that I am jeopardizing my academic livelihood. Some might even say that as a black male, who has already been stereotyped as a “crotch-grabbing, sexual fiend,” that I’m at risk of reinforcing that stereotype. (Let’s be real, that racist stereotype has been around for centuries; it is already part of white America’s imaginary landscape.)

Yet, I refuse to remain a prisoner of the lies that we men like to tell ourselves — that we are beyond the messiness of sexism and male patriarchy, that we don’t oppress women. Let me clarify. This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life. Please don’t take this as a confession for which I’m seeking forgiveness. Confessions can be easy, especially when we know that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming.

As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a nonphilosophical fad. I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.

I have been fed a poisonous diet of images that fragment women into mere body parts. I have also been complicit with a dominant male narrative that says that women enjoy being treated like sexual toys. In our collective male imagination, women are “things” to be used for our visual and physical titillation. And even as I know how poisonous and false these sexist assumptions are, I am often ambushed by my own hidden sexism. I continue to see women through the male gaze that belies my best intentions not to sexually objectify them. Our collective male erotic feelings and fantasies are complicit in the degradation of women. And we must be mindful that not all women endure sexual degradation in the same way.

I recognize how my being a sexist has a differential impact on black women and women of color who are not only victims of racism, but also sexism, my sexism. For example, black women and women of color not only suffer from sexual objectification, but the ways in which they are objectified is linked to how they are racially depicted, some as “exotic” and others as “hyper-sexual.” You see, the complicity, the responsibility, the pain that I cause runs deep. And, get this. I refuse to seek shelter; I refuse to live a lie. So, every day of my life I fight against the dominant male narrative, choosing to see women as subjects, not objects. But even as I fight, there are moments of failure. Just because I fight against sexism does not give me clean hands, as it were, at the end of the day; I continue to falter, and I continue to oppress. And even though the ways in which I oppress women is unintentional, this does not free me of being responsible.

If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.” If that term brings to mind a state of pain, open flesh, it is meant to do so. After all, it is painful to let go of your “white innocence,” to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness.

I can see your anger. I can see that this letter is being misunderstood. This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. I’m now daring you to face a racist history which, paraphrasing Baldwin, has placed you where you are and that has formed your own racism. Again, in the spirit of Baldwin, I am asking you to enter into battle with your white self. I’m asking that you open yourself up; to speak to, to admit to, the racist poison that is inside of you.

Again, take a deep breath. Don’t tell me about how many black friends you have. Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’mthe racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers.

As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering. Just as my comfort in being male is linked to the suffering of women, which makes me sexist, so, too, you are racist. That is the gift that I want you to accept, to embrace. It is a form of knowledge that is taboo. Imagine the impact that the acceptance of this gift might have on you and the world.

Take another deep breath. I know that there are those who will write to me in the comment section with boiling anger, sarcasm, disbelief, denial. There are those who will say, “Yancy is just an angry black man.” There are others who will say, “Why isn’t Yancy telling black people to be honest about the violence in their own black neighborhoods?” Or, “How can Yancy say that all white people are racists?” If you are saying these things, then you’ve already failed to listen. I come with a gift. You’re already rejecting the gift that I have to offer. This letter is about you. Don’t change the conversation. I assure you that so many black people suffering from poverty and joblessness, which is linked to high levels of crime, are painfully aware of the existential toll that they have had to face because they are black and, as Baldwin adds, “for no other reason.”

Some of your white brothers and sisters have made this leap. The legal scholar Stephanie M. Wildman, has written, “I simply believe that no matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am. Because part of racism is systemic, I benefit from the privilege that I am struggling to see.” And the journalism professor Robert Jensen: “I like to think I have changed, even though I routinely trip over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the institutional racism around me. Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting from white privilege.”

What I’m asking is that you first accept the racism within yourself, accept all of the truth about what it means for you to be white in a society that was created for you. I’m asking for you to trace the binds that tie you to forms of domination that you would rather not see. When you walk into the world, you can walk with assurance; you have already signed a contract, so to speak, that guarantees you a certain form of social safety.

Baldwin argues for a form of love that is “a state of being, or state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Most of my days, I’m engaged in a personal and societal battle against sexism. So many times, I fail. And so many times, I’m complicit. But I refuse to hide behind that mirror that lies to me about my “non-sexist nobility.” Baldwin says, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” In my heart, I’m done with the mask of sexism, though I’m tempted every day to wear it. And, there are times when it still gets the better of me.

White America, are you prepared to be at war with yourself, your white identity, your white power, your white privilege? Are you prepared to show me a white self that love has unmasked? I’m asking for love in return for a gift; in fact, I’m hoping that this gift might help you to see yourself in ways that you have not seen before. Of course, the history of white supremacy in America belies this gesture of black gift-giving, this gesture of non-sentimental love. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered even as he loved.

Perhaps the language of this letter will encourage a split — not a split between black and white, but a fissure in your understanding, a space for loving a Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and others. I’m suggesting a form of love that enables you to see the role that you play (even despite your anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap.

Take one more deep breath. I have another gift.

If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black.

In peace,

George Yancy

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.

Aging Out of Retirement Communities?

This week in North Philly Notes, Brittany Bramlett, author of Senior Power or Senior Peril, writes about how senior retirement communities in Florida—and around the country—are in peril in the light of changing economics.

The Villages is an expansive retirement community with age restrictions in place. Grandchildren can visit but not for extended periods of time. I visited The Villages in 2010 as part of the field research for my book, Senior Power or Senior Peril, I found a lively retirement community with golf carts galore. The thousands of homes in The Villages surround impeccably maintained Town Centers. Residents have the freedom and time to devote to the hundreds of social clubs available.

But, things are different for the neighboring community of Tavares, Florida. Here is an excerpt from my field notes from Tuesday, September 28th, 2010:

Bramlett_v2_042814.indd“As I leave the Villages, I leave the beautiful, developed neighborhoods of Sumter County.  On my drive to my hotel, the scene is different. Gone are the golf courses and perfectly maintained grassy areas. Instead, I pass by a lot of older homes, some prefab homes and trailers.  I see a number of Dollar Generals on my drive and a lot of car dealerships. There aren’t many, if any, restaurants or stores that look new.  I don’t see coffee shops or upscale shopping. This area appears to be a community of people struggling economically. And, developers have not been recently attracted outside of The Villages.”

There will probably always be retirement communities like The Villages, but these gated communities may be increasingly out of reach for the next generation of older Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, “by 2022, the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] projects that 31.9% of those ages 65 to 74 will still be working. That compares with 20.4% of the same age bracket in the workforce in 2002 and 26.8% who were in the workforce in 2012.”

The rate of older adults in the workforce is rising. And, projections indicate that this trend will continue. The Pew Research Center notes the trend and suggests a number of reasons for the graying workforce. One explanation centers on economic hardship faced by senior citizens as a result of the Great Recession.

With trends like this, there will probably be less people moving to places like The Villages in Florida. These changes will certainly have implications for aged communities. First, more people will age in place, which means new aged communities (without amenities) developing all over the country. Second, places like Tavares might benefit from the increased presence of older adults living and working in their communities.

Places with concentrations of older adults will probably always vary in important ways, economically, politically, and culturally. In Senior Power or Senior Peril, I examine aged communities at length. Older residents in aged communities have greater political knowledge than older people living elsewhere and tend to support safety net policies to a greater degree. These places are fascinating for understanding group dynamics and homogeneous communities. Surely, they will continue to be places that draw our attention as their citizens and governments respond to demographic as well as economic and political forces.

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