Monday, January 19, 2015

Speakers raise tough issues at Coe MLK celebration

Issues of diversity and inclusion were front and center in a day-long celebration of Martin Luther King Day at Coe College. Featured speakers included Geneva Williams, a local civil rights attorney who used the 1955 murder of Emmett Till to frame contemporary race relations; and political scientist Rebecca Stonawski, who discussed civil rights aspects of immigration issues.

Geneva Williams
Williams argued today's racial issues exist in the context of (and in spite of) substantial progress since the 1950s, including the end of legal disenfranchisement and the election of a President of color. She characterized today's problems as primarily economic disenfranchisement, as well as a "culture that dehumanizes each other." It is harder for events like the several 2014 shootings of unarmed black males to touch "our collective conscience," and easier to blame victims like Eric Garner when "we no longer see ourselves in the other."

She commends voting and inter-racial dialogue as means of healing this breach. During the Q-and-A section, she quipped that it's "harder to talk about race than to have the sex talk." I think there are two huge obstacles to dialogue, and one to voting:
  • In an America marked by widening economic inequality (which is principally class-based but has strong racial elements) and sprawling metropolises, it is unusual to have acquaintances that cross race and/or class lines. Acquaintance creates the opportunity for dialogue that may not occur all at once. If I greeted a black person with "So, what's it like being black in Cedar Rapids?" or "Bummer about Tamir Rice, huh?" they would justifiably dismiss me as a presumptuous lunatic. Only contact over time can create the context for productive dialogue, and American society is designed to avoid rather than facilitate that contact.
  • Whites have swung in a generation or two from obliviousness if not outright offensiveness to great fear of offending. I know I have. Perhaps this is true of blacks, too? We can't manage dialogue if we're so self-censored we sound like politicians under investigation. Similarly we can't expect anyone to talk candidly to us if we seize on the slightest offense. New York police union leader Patrick Lynch's rejection of any criticism of police tactics gets points for loyalty, but has done real damage to American race relations that were not in great shape to begin with.
  • Voting is an obvious solution in towns like Ferguson, where neither the City Council nor the Police Department is close to representative of the town's population. But beyond that, it's not clear to me there are readily-available policy solutions to the problems of the under-employed, much less political candidates advocating them. So what's a poor black voter to do?
Rebecca Stonawski
Stonawski commendably took on the challenge of explaining immigration policy issues and terminology, culminating in the current stand-off in Washington. She described the current administration policy as [a] providing a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants currently in the country, with a reprieve from deportation in the meantime; [b] strengthening enforcement both at the border and workplaces; and [c] clearing the backlog of visa applications, which according to has now exceeded 20 years for Mexican applicants. The proposals face uncertain prospects in Congress, with the House last week voting to block funding to implement Obama's interim executive order and the Senate likely to follow. [Incidentally, Obama would be the third straight president to have immigration proposals blocked by Congress, suggesting the institutions are playing out learned roles. My amateur transactional analysis won't get us to a solution, though.] Stonawski urged students and others in attendance to inform themselves further and then to become actively involved on behalf of your preferred solution.

No one, as far as I know, supports the current immigration situation. People have very different goals, of course, but that doesn't need to be a barrier to a solution that advances all of their different interests. (Obama's, or George W. Bush's, proposals could serve as the basis for such a solution.) The major obstacle is that many people who are already actively involved in the debate over this policy are unwilling to acknowledge two truths which I think are unavoidably true: [1] immigrants currently in this country illegally are drawn primarily by job opportunity, and play an integral role in our economy i.e. to expel them all and prevent their entry is a fantasy; [2] no country can admit everyone who wants to live there i.e. even a liberalized policy is still going to exclude people. One of the most compelling sections of King's Washington speech was the vision he described of a future of racial harmony.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.... I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
Of course there were those who saw that vision as morally repugnant. But there had to be others who heard those words and thought it described a way more appealing world than the one they inhabited, and decided: "Let's do it! It's way past time for this shit to stop."

Until someone paints a similarly compelling vision that incorporates the realities of immigration, of "come heres" and "been heres" working side-by-side and treated with dignity, we are going to be stuck with the current policy stalemate, mired as it is in (depending on your perspective) idealism or rigidity. And we're going to need executive action to keep the situation on the ground from completely breaking down.


"Strength Through Diversity (II)," 9 March 2014
"Strength Through Diversity," 1 March 2014
"The Race Card Project," 12 February 2014
"Race Matters, Damn It," 16 April 2013

Sarah Goodyear, "White Privilege, On a Bicycle," City Lab, 18 January 2015
Allen Vandermeulen, "Sermon: Making Room," The Here and the Hereafter, 18 January 2015

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