Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Baltimore burns

Baltimore burns

The streets of the city burn me
I could walk through the real flames and they wouldn’t touch me
They are no match for the crepitation of scorching flesh
Baltimore burns a hole in my heart
An open wound of widening edges
A long, winding gash that no longer bleeds
It has bled too long
I wonder how it withstands the next, the always next
A black mother slaps a black son
The audience applauds, as the gladiators fight off the lions
A black mother fearfully slaps a black son away from
The audience parades her: that is how you treat a black child
A black mother drags her black son from the light
The audience makes a mockery of her with their applause
The audience reads what it has taught
Or so it thinks
The audience claps on her fear, her terror
I don’t know that black mother, but don’t I?
Don’t I know the beatings of a black son before the white master
To save him from the master’s beating
Don’t I know the teaching of submission and unquestioning respect
To those who least deserve it
Because assertiveness is a road of no return
Don’t I know the silent, hidden cry of that Negro woman
As she emasculates her black son to protect him
The cry that, somehow, holds a hope somewhere
“as long as he is alive, as long as he is alive”
Whatever being alive may mean
Don’t I know that only those much too brave
Those I am not
Slit the black son’s throat because there are limits to what living is
There are limits to God
I don’t know that black woman.
Then she spoke. She said what we, black mothers, knew.

I want my son alive.

- Isabel M. Estrada-Portales

Baltimore and the “good Negroes” hypocrisy of media and pundits

Isabel M. Estrada-Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
― Martin Luther King Jr.
The Other America, March 14, 1968

In today’s Morning Edition, in NPR, Steve Inskeep reported that Baltimore is not Ferguson. Here’s what it really is. I was rather surprised at the angle of this report. I understand the desire to showcase what Baltimore is, in general, and how Baltimore residents are, also in general.

The idea of not adding Baltimore to a list of cities where “high-profile deaths of African-American men involving police” occurred is somewhat silly. Of course it belongs in that list, and of course, every one of those cities is a particular place and each of those deaths a particular story. Each of them are, also, part of a much larger, national story about many things, including poverty, racism, police brutality, disenfranchisement and lack of accountability for those who are supposed to hold us accountable.

Inskeep chose instead to focus on the wonders of Baltimore, “the greatest city in the country,” which are many.

However, the greatest city has had such an epidemic of police brutality that just the payments to settle claims could rebuild every torn building from Monday’s violence.

So, the greatest city in the country is not as great for everyone. As Inskeep knows, many of those places he visited are rife with poverty, with the crime that usually assails impoverished and under-served areas, with the unemployment and lack of real investment that creates that poverty and with the over-policing necessary to continue to buttress the coffers of those profiting from the war on drugs.

Those friendly residents, those residents cleaning up the city after a few looters, wrongdoers and just others swept in the irrational sentiment of the moment messed it up – not that you would know it was a few by the front page pictures and headlines in newspapers and the TV visuals – those residents are always there. That is where they live. The majority of them are poor and decent. They work their tails off in low paying jobs and have to send their kids to bad schools that will end up keeping them tied to the same cycle of misery.

All of the sudden, the media have found those “decent residents,” “those nice black people,” “those who are torn and ashamed by the acts of the looters.” Those residents have always been there. Usually, the media and the politicians call them takers, welfare queens, lazy bums that don’t want to work. Those are the people to whom we aim the policies to further humiliate them. Those are the ones we despise when we talk about food stamps and try to deny them any support and make them pay for that meager help with a high price in pride.

Are there criminals among them? Oh, yes, there are. There are criminals everywhere. We would do well to remember how one becomes a criminal: by violating a rule that may have been unjust to begin with…and by not having the money or the connections to defend oneself.   

But now those are the good people. They are not looters. I was waiting for someone to say they were the good Negroes. The media even paraded the video of a mother slapping her son and dragging him away from the riots with a slew of bad words. Usually, they would have used that same imagery to show how violent blacks are and how they raise their children with such unkempt demeanor. But this time, that image serves their purposes, so, it becomes exemplary.

I know what many black mothers like me thought of that. I didn’t watch the video; the first still image revolted me because I suspect what she felt; black mothers have been feeling that for a long time: fear, terror. She knew he could get killed if he was caught. She knew his record would be tarnished forever as it doesn’t happen to white kids who riot after their team loses a sports game. We have slapped our black sons hard in front of the white master for long enough, because we think that would protect them from the much harsher and definitive slap from the master. We have done that even when we knew in our hearts it was unfair.

The last interviewee, the mother with a six-year-old boy, did not say: “I am afraid for my son since Monday (when the riots happened).” She said: “I am afraid for my son EVERYDAY.” Why do we think that is? Would it be, perhaps, because she knows her son could be walking the streets and in the next scene be in a hospital bed with a severed spine after a brief encounter with the Baltimore police?

Don’t get me wrong. She is also afraid because she knows the poverty and crime that surrounds her. But crime is not a black thing you wouldn’t understand. Crime is a poverty thing we don’t want to understand. That kind of crime, that is. There is the other crime of those who loot the environment, the savings of working people, the real estate market, the banks, the governors’ mansions…but I guess that’s a different thing altogether.

Apparently, there are reasons people riot, and injustice and despair seem to be somewhat at the top of the list. In 2011, as we were trying to understand riots in the UK, Dr. Ken Eisold wrote in Psychology Today:
This is not to justify the behavior of the mob, but to recognize that we all can so easily become “hooligans” ourselves. To be sure, delinquents and petty thieves can easily join in under the cover the mob provides. But riots do not rely on criminals or “criminality, pure and simple.” Thinking that way, though, can distract us from the underlying conditions that give rise to such events. They can be appeals to be heard, when normal channels don't work. They can be eruptions of rage, when frustrations boil over. They can be expressions of hope that things could change. And they could be all these things - and more.
No, Baltimore is not Ferguson. But for the poor, black neighborhoods, it may as well be.

Good reads


Riots are more complex than "criminality, pure and simple." 

DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.



Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jewish and/vs. Blacks: Our selective, inconsequential outrage

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

I have found myself many times engaging in the Jewish-black comparison. I guess it is suggested to us often by those who like to say it is our black culture and not the socio-economical structure of exploitation what has kept us from achieving what they think we should achieve: a bourgeois life, a seat in the theater of neoliberal exploits, an excellence that is not demanded of others.
So, yes, I have caught myself often wondering about the differences between Jews and blacks, or more precisely, between the Jewish and black holocaustic experiences. I use the term holocaust purposefully, as it has become entangled with a singular meaning: the mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Doubtlessly, the Jewish people has suffered discrimination for centuries and their identity was also imbued with a plethora of negative meanings, their very names turned into shorthand for all the ills of various societies throughout history, as despots a plenty needed a scapegoat to placate the fury of hungry mobs, and satiate the greediness of elites.
The Jewish people have also endured the physical marking of their bodies. Not just the literal markings in the killing camps of the previous century, but the construction of a Jewish body that could be identified at a glance. The “Jewish nose” would be a prime example.
Blacks are more readily identifiable. As Toni Morrison would beautifully, painstakingly put it:
These slaves, unlike many others in the world’s history, were visible to a fault. And they had inherited, among other things, a long history of the “meaning” of color. It was not simply that this slave population had a distinctive color; it was that this color “meant” something. This “meaning” had been named and deployed by scholars from at least the moment, in the eighteenth century, when other and sometimes the same scholars investigated both the natural history and the inalienable rights of man—that is to say, human freedom.
But both groups sustained the onslaught of race science that picked their bodies apart and found all kinds of differences, whose meaningless seems now laughable, with the paramount white body. Difference was always seen as either lack or excess. The same way the Old World once looked at a different system of government and structure of society and concluded that different meant inexistent, hence, conquerable, civilizable.  
There is a common history of murderous discrimination against and strategic othering for economic exploitation of blacks and Jews. However, those stories are told in uncannily distinct fashions and our compassionate gaze is doled out quite differently to each group. Why the history of the barbaric treatment of blacks in the United States far from compassion elicits judgment of the victims?
Perhaps it has to do with the painful ease of telling the cusp of the story of the Jewish people – the 20th century Holocaust –, almost as a parable of how a history of unfairness and prejudice could turn out very badly, and make us all complicit in a unfathomable crime. Maybe even the clear delineation of dates contributes to the manner this story is told in a way that forces us to take sides.
Perhaps it has to do with the ease of identifying the culprits, of assigning blame, even of determining how tainted others who did not commit the crimes directly are and how much guilt is shared by those who didn’t act expeditiously enough, the countries that remained on the sidelines.
Perhaps it has to do, when it comes to finding ways to atone for sins and pay restitutions, with the relative ease of demonstrating who benefited from the exploitation, which companies should be penalized, which countries should pony up while avoiding the excessive punishment of the Treaty of Versailles’ variety that winded up pushing Germany into the craze years later.
Perhaps, yet again, the certainty of the time period, and the ease of determining not only who was alive then, but also who was ripping the benefits established a clear line of restoration. The collective guilt was such that the world gave the Jewish people a country based on some mythical rights and without considering the rights of those who were there – this is the part with which I certainly don’t agree.  
Perhaps it has to do with the swiftness of justice, or at least the launching of an unambiguous campaign to hound, find, try and convict most severely those who were involved. It was never soon enough for the victims and their families, but certainly much sooner than we have seen in the United States with those who murdered or re-enslaved blacks.
Perhaps it was just the concentrated magnitude of the crime in time and space – and this is not a pun, I wouldn’t dare. I believe the existence of concentration camps, such a foci of evil and depravity, would have alone made the case for the brutality of Nazism if we had never found any other evidence. The added element of the brevity in time of such massacre just sealed it.
In comparison, the black holocaust has too many strikes against it.
It went on for too long…it’s still going on.
There are too many culprits – countries, companies, individuals – over too many centuries. There have been many mass murders and a longstanding massacre but not one single historical period to which we could easily point and assign blame. In a monstrous sense, the barbarity was not concentrated enough.  
The continuous postponement of justice, in clear opposition to the swiftness of persecution and prosecution of Nazis, has made the historical accounting – to say nothing of the financial, economic one – ever more impossible, ever more seemingly unfair, as we would be “punishing” the innocent descendants, and not those who committed the misdeeds.
I contend that the actual reason we do not want to engage in a historical reckoning of the use and abuse of blacks in the United States and devise a serious program of restitution is a lot simpler, and it is the same that enslaved them in the first place: money.
We do not need to prosecute the sons and daughters of slave owners. We don’t even need to hold directly accountable the descendants of those who exploited black conscripts or profited from their exclusion from the real state market just last century – as we were wringing our hands in despair and horror about the evils of Hitler.
All we need to do is to account for how much of their current wealth and that of many companies that pose as models of society can be directly traced to that exploitation, and devise a way to distribute some of it to the people who actually built it.
Forget slavery, since we seem to believe that was too long ago. Let’s just make restitution for the exploitation of blacks during the last century – if we just did the numbers for the same period for which Germany and the companies that took advantage of them make restitutions to the Jewish people, we would rebirth many black communities in America.
I wonder how much outrage we would be showing about the plight of Jews under Hitler if we were the ones having to pay for the restitutions.
We fret about “punishing” innocent descendants of criminal parents out of their wealth; but do not have a second thought about restoring to the innocent descendants of innocent slaves some of the wealth they helped create but couldn’t enjoy or leave to their offspring.
That is the irony of the mantra of hard work will make you rich in America. Were it true, the sons and daughters of slaves would own the country.
There is some awry causticness in the notion that the length and dispersion of the exploitation of black people make their suffering irredeemable and the culprits somehow, if not blameless, just plain untouchable, quasi excused.  
Race, the detailed construction of blackness is still affording benefits as the locus of evil and abnormality. And, as soon as consciousness was perceived to be rising, as soon as the global South got the inkling that we are all one, another useful concept raised its head: colorblindness.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Gay marriage could increase abortions…Isn’t it obvious?

By Isabel M. Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

As a character in one of my friend’s Mara Jiménez’s stories would have it, a certain level of ignorance or stupidity is lascivious. By the same token, there is a degree of vulgar manipulation that is not just immoral, but should be illegal…or at the very least come with the weed one would need to process it.
Gene Schaerr, attorney of Utah’s ban on marriage-equality’s fame, wrote in The Daily Signal, that beacon of truth and clarity belonging to The Heritage Foundation, that forcing states to recognize gay marriage could increase abortions. I, in my humble ignorance, never read this blog, but was alerted to this piece through Raw Story.
Due to my obsession with source-checking – a professional malformation – and how dumb the idea sounded, I dutifully stopped laughing and clicked on the original article, to make sure the Raw Story didn’t make things any more ridiculous than they already were. Difficult, I know.
And there it was plain as day. Why would anybody be surprised The Onion can’t catch a break? It is rather hard to compete with the actual news these days.
Schaerr says that “on the surface, abortion and same-sex marriage may seem unrelated.” Yes, only on the surface, though, because now that even people in the most conservative states are getting around to realize that someone else’s marriage is none of their business and that gay people may even be people with, oh, God, no!, rights, we have to make sure that they look way below the surface and see the clear line between two men getting married and the subsequent onslaught of abortions.
If same-sex marriage won’t get them out, abortion should would!
In a nutshell: A reduction in the opposite-sex marriage rate means an increase in the percentage of women who are unmarried and who, according to all available data, have much higher abortion rates than married women. And based on past experience, institutionalizing same-sex marriage poses an enormous risk of reduced opposite-sex marriage rates.
DO NOTICE THE QUOTATION MARKS. He really wrote that.
Besides the obvious problem of “institutionalizing same-sex marriage” and forcing all of us to marry people of our own gender…oh, no, that’s not what that means, is it?
Well, besides how somehow “institutionalizing same-sex marriage” becomes a problem – something, mind you, he failed at defending on the Supreme Court – there is then the other problem of “reduced opposite-sex marriage rates.”
As Dana Milbank put it, the last-ditch argument is clear: Gay marriage kills. He is not exaggerating one bit, according to Schaerr gay marriage and abortion “are closely linked in a short and simple causal chain.”
Schaerr’s arguments include that because unmarried women have more abortion than married ones, and same-sex marriage would lead to more unmarried women…well, again, plain as day: more abortions – 900,000 more to be exact.
Because somehow the fact that we are not getting married at the same rates as before is a direct consequence of gays getting married and not, say, of the fact that we can cohabitate just fine, thank you; the economy sucks and weddings are expensive; we do not believe in the nonsensical things he believes in; etc.
We know the number of people – you know, the straight, normal kind of people…not very moral, but at least not LGBT people – who decide to live together as couples, have children, raise them, go to PTA meetings, spend money in summer camps are growing, exponentially.
But, again, as soon as same-sex marriage is “institutionalized,” those cohabitating types will be legions and they will have more abortions for sure. So, same-sex marriage causes abortion. Right there.
I’m sure it was just an oversight and he is tripping all over himself right now to submit the corrected version of his piece in which he includes things such as the increased number of adoptions in general and of adoptions of children with disabilities, of children who would otherwise be vegetating in our marvelous foster care system, of black and brown children, of children of pregnant women who want to have an abortion but are too late or are dissuaded by seeing the possibility of a good adoption for her future child. Same-sex couples adopt those children.
Lastly, I’m sure he would also appreciate the irony of being against people who want to sustain such a decadent, patriarchal and discriminatory institution such as marriage.
I am a dead set in favor of same-sex marriage because equality is equality is equality. As soon as we get that done, I’ll start campaigning against it along with the heterosexual kind.  

Do read…it’s very funny

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The religious entitlement, selective memory and fearmongering

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

When fighting the rhetoric of the Islamic State and similarly situated religious terrorists, we usually begin with a direct counter argument to their lunacy about “America’s fight against Islam” and “the West trying to convert every Muslim into a Christian.”
After reading Rod Dreher’s article in Times, I thought he was quoting some deluded Islamist terrorist, until I realized it said Christians.
If this sounds extreme to you, please read The Writing’s on the Wall for Christians, I mean, pass the title. Here is the first paragraph, full of the loving and peaceful Christian spirit we expect from someone like him:
The current fight over Indiana is a real handwriting-on-the-wall moment for orthodox Christians and other religious conservatives, who now understand that the Left’s culture warriors, having won the gay-rights conflict decisively, are determined to shoot the prisoners.
According to him, those of us who oppose discrimination are about to stand siege around every church, mosque, synagogue and other places of worship and force everyone inside to convert to whatever the religion of the “Left’s culture warriors” is and to become gay and be married right then and there. Or something along those lines, since we are clearly out to get them. Nothing more Christian-like than festering divisions, but I digress.
I won't discuss the myriad of reasons why Indiana’s “religious freedom” law is misguided, discriminatory and, if it didn’t speak to the worst in us, laughable. Plenty of people did this much better than I could dream of doing it.
But the kernel of Dreher’s diatribe requires attention: his convenient comparisons to race, with the emphatic purpose of discrediting the essential civil and human rights that are at the base of that just parallel.
His is a smart if hardly new approach. He panders to the most, sadly, discriminatory segments of the black church in America that, as the church in general, have negative views of LGBT persons.
Those groups try in vain to distinguish their struggle for equality from the essential, long-arched struggle for fairness and justice across the world and across all groups. I guess that is why their disparaging remarks about LGBT rights are, indeed, a lot more painful to hear.
In his blog, Dreher insists that a baker who refuses to bake a cake for a “gay weeding” and one who refuses to bake one with disparaging and hateful messages about gays have the same rights of refusal. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But is it? Would it be right for a baker to refuse to bake a cake for an interracial weeding or one with disparaging comments about blacks? That’s why conservatives go to great lengths to distinguish those two fights, because when one substitutes sexual orientation for race, you realize how brutally unfair it and discriminatory it is.
I have two main contentions with Dreher’s piece: race and numbers.

Race has no moral implications, really?

In what can only be considered a willful exercise of un-remembering, Dreher says:
I understand that most liberals view homosexuality as entirely analogous to race. Abrahamic religion does not see it that way. Sexual expression has moral meaning that race does not. You don’t have to agree with Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and traditional Christians, but this goes down to the foundational beliefs of our religions. (Emphasis is mine.)
Is he seriously saying that for “traditional” and non-traditional Christians alike race does not have moral meaning?
Is he forgetting the proper verb tense? Did he mean “Sexual expression has moral meaning that race does not have now.”? Or did he mean “Sexual expression has moral meaning that is no longer acceptable to attribute to race in polite company.”?
Did he ever read the Loving v. Virginia case in which the Supreme Court ruled bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional? Did he ever read the arguments from the state of Virginia, so thoroughly based on religious interpretation and explicit mentions of the Almighty that even atheists can’t read them without blushing?
The essence of the Virginia laws include the State's legitimate purposes “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,” and to prevent “the corruption of blood,” “a mongrel breed of citizens,” and “the obliteration of racial pride.”
In case you are wondering, the Loving v. Virginia case was decided in 1967!
But I am sure Dreher has read them, which is why his stance is so hypocritical.
Furthermore, has he ever read the basis of slavery as a whole, the rationales for Jim Crow and the many subterfuges to keep black people enslaved or under the boot of whites due to their race-based moral failings?
The Southern Argument for Slavery has a very nice summary, but allow me to quote just a couple of the arguments:
Defenders of slavery noted that in the Bible, Abraham had slaves. They point to the Ten Commandments, noting that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house,... nor his manservant, nor his maidservant.” In the New Testament, Paul returned a runaway slave, Philemon, to his master, and, although slavery was widespread throughout the Roman world, Jesus never spoke out against it.
Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was divine, and that it brought Christianity to the heathen from across the ocean. Slavery was, according to this argument, a good thing for the enslaved. John C. Calhoun said, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
Not surprisingly, we find that often the same groups have opposed both: same-sex marriage and interracial marriage.
Liberal analysts when discussing laws of the ilk of Indiana's go to great lengths to acknowledge and explain the plight of conservative religious people, whites to a very large extent, who find that the world as they had known it and - I do not know based on what given the history - thought to be Panglossian-ly good is vertiginously changing before their eyes.
Somehow, we should pity them for that, or, at least understand them. Really? Because a world based on discrimination and exploitation of people by race, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. was so good that is a sad thing they have lost it.
I have zero sympathy for the pleas for understanding that blight the predicament of the people who were really under the boot of those now crying foul.
Yes, it is true that the world has changed, thankfully, continues to change and hopefully will pick up the pace because there is plenty of needed change yet to come, if, say, a Ferguson report you may have heard about and a few transgender women abused or killed on the streets of DC, just to pick two examples, are any indication.
What they have lost is the right to be the ones determining how that world and the people in it should live their lives. But, guess what: they didn't have that right to begin with. They never should have had the right to determine the rules for all of us. They usurped that right and now we are just saying: you live your life the way you please, and, by all means, do not be gay, but do not try to influence how we live ours.
Unfortunately, they still have a lot more influence on our lives than many of us like. Religious conservatives are the ones pushing backward public school curricula for all children: against teaching evolution, sexual education, common core standards, climate change, and using historically accurate textbooks.   
No, they haven't been excluded from the public sphere. Otherwise, Dreher wouldn't be able to reinvent Western history on the pages of Times magazine. They just no longer have the right to abuse others just because they don't agree with them.
Toni Morrison would say that the purpose of racism is to define Black people as reactions to White people. We could think about these views of religious people under attack the same way: those who believe differently and those who are different and don't hide it are just perennial affronts to them.
They are afraid of a changing world. Well, they shouldn't be. I wish they weren't afraid and, instead, embrace the change that would make more just the lives of their brothers and sisters. But, if they are afraid, what entitles them to live without fear?
What about the fear of a girl in a classroom whose two mothers are being pilloried by a teacher spewing the religious “truths” about what a family is? What about the fear of the transgender people who are beaten up and killed? What about the fear of the gay children who don’t know where to turn?
Do the religious conservatives now so afraid have stopped to consider what a huge source of continuous fear they have been by sustaining and reinforcing many discriminatory injustices perpetrated in the lives of generations of people without the power to decide their destinies?
I know we have stretched our imaginations with the notion that money is speech, so, to think that a cake is speech is not so far off. However, not so long ago the bakery and florist religious communities found a way to adapt their baking and planting semiotics to serve interracial couples. It is time to engage in a similar exercise.
We conveniently only think of the good implications of the federal law, but let us remember how it ended up being twisted. For instance, unmarried couples and single mothers were rejected by landlords who didn't believe in sex or children out of wedlock.

The discrimination is not that huge

We get to the second contention: is discrimination such a big deal if it only happens to a few people? Dreher says:
Where, exactly, are the many examples of businesses discriminating against same-sex patrons? If Indiana in 2015 were like Mississippi in 1956, that would be one thing. But the number of cases nationwide where this has happened has been small, involving rare instances in which a commercial service is arguably a form of coerced expression.
And, with my inability to not mix up things, I remember the 'oh, terrible epidemic' of cases of voter fraud that can be counted with the fingers of one hand that, however, somehow demand stringent and unconstitutional new voter identification requirements – I am sure it is mere coincidence that the most affected groups would be blacks, Latinos, poor people, go figure.
So, if there are only a few couples against which there is discrimination, if there are only a few blacks still forced to sit on the back of the bus, if there are only a few women not treated equally in the workplace, we should not be making a fuss about it, is that it? I mean, if, say, they decided to lynch gay people, well, then...

Good reads