Director's message

By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of The November Coalition

Lesson from a loser - because sometimes we win

In past messages I've shared words of dead radicals, and words from the hearts and minds of others still alive- the living radicals. What radical really means is one who goes to the root of things. One radish-sturdy modern radical is Howard Zinn, a living historian who teaches that we don't learn from history because we don't study it. We can't study it. High school and college textbooks seldom tell us the truth about it, or gloss over the gory or unflattering parts so keenly that our hindsight isn't hindsight at all.

Social movements may stall or die because we don't know the root cause of our country's social problems. Remember that it's the winners who write the text books. We ought to ask ourselves what some of the losers might have had to say.

It was Zinn, author of The People's History of the United States, who translated and explained my public education experience and its difference with real learning from the school of 'hard knocks.' He has enabled me to better understand the world and my own place in it.

There is now a stormy national discussion about race and the drug war. And we ask ourselves - is the drug war a race war or does social class factor in, and if so, where? Which one ought to receive our undivided attention, or how much attention do we give one over the other? And what about the middle class? If we pound on race and poverty won't they think that it's not their problem? Lessons from history can help us organize opposition to the drug war and gather public support for prisoner release.

Despite sincere efforts to prove otherwise, racism is not something natural. It is a learned system of belief, a habit of mind as well as a plan for social organization. As Zinn in People's History explains, "We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under favorable conditions-with no history of subordination, no money incentive for exploitation and enslavement, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor." We do know, however, that even under extreme conditions blacks, poor whites and indigenous natives forged strong bonds of friendship, marriage, and community cooperation-early in colonial history. So viable were these bonds that laws were passed by colonial legislatures to forbid such relationships.

Zinn elaborates, "Only one fear (among the very wealthy classes) was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order."

Chattel slavery (owning people like property) has evolved to "institutionalized racism," which means that racist thoughts are now habitually linked to well-conditioned responses, part of the way we think and act every single day without any alternative thought. However, it took more laws to bring about those "automatic" racist thoughts and social organization in our country.

This change in history, enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment, is still the foundation on which our current prison-industrial complex now relies - in which the state, in strict legal fashion owns bodies like property.

The added laws never said, "We don't want you people to unite in struggle so you can't associate." Instead, the Virginia Assembly solemnly proclaimed all white people superior to blacks. Unfortunately for the wealthy folks making the rules, mere segregation laws didn't stop people from associating across racial lines, especially those in the same hopeless economic boat. They would periodically come together in struggle. Something had to be done about that! Northern and Southern rulers passed more segregation laws, and in the 1750's they started throwing a few "bones" to the white, male underclass - fewer to the white women in the same class - and this has ultimately worked up unto this day. Edmund Morgan wrote in an early history of Virginia:

"Virginia's ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to all blacks, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants, whose indentured time was served, with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings and a gun. Released, white female servants were to get 15 bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly freed servants were to get 50 acres of land."

Formerly indentured, poor whites now felt less exploited, enjoying a little less oppression and some prosperity. The 'Master' then, by political miracle, was suddenly the good guy to these poor whites. Racial disdain ingrained in children of new generations as the white "economic miracle" improved steadily over time. Laws that gave poor whites some added rewards over the blacks, formalized the division needed to prevent a successful challenge to the developing class system.

This thick blend of race and class systems, based on privilege, firepower and skin color is firmly established in our U.S. history. Even though some laws have changed in recent times, most of these same class-and-race-based social relationships are still with us today, for example, the master/slave relationship is now enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment. Prisoners are legal slaves of the state.

Attitudes of superiority, our thoughts, still prompt actions that are the cement in a foundation of discrimination. Hope of improved race relations becomes tenuous with prejudice going every direction so effectively and often so violently as in many U.S. prisons today. It renders all but the winners powerless-most of the time.

Earl wrote us from Idaho, "We are forced to live with blacks under closer circumstances that any other member of society. They hate all of us, and we are the minority in here. They don't bother to hide it, or dress it up with pretty words. What is there for those of us who are looking for more than the 'Hitliterian rants' or 'Bubba Gibberish' . . . Many of us behind the wall want change and to play a part in it. We just don't want, nor will allow ourselves, to be eaten up by a lot of useless hate. There is enough of that to go around now, unchanneled it's useless."

Earl, we need to change our thinking, all of us. I've heard the following phrase more than once, "You're real smart for a woman." I don't hear much after that line sinks in, usually don't want to have much to do with the person who said it, either. A similar resentment and shut-down occurs when a person with dark skin hears, "He is very articulate for a black man." You know, I don't mind if someone thinks I'm smart, but I really resent when they think I'm smart because most women aren't. That's biological racism, Earl, keeping one's mind permanently closed to women and people of color other than white.

A black 35-year-old wrote from Folsom prison, "Growing up, I was bussed an hour to school each day, along with a few of my friends, but not many. I spent most of my day surrounded by white people and got used to how hated I was because of the color of my skin. Everyday I was called terrible names. It was always such a relief to get home; even the police harassed me until I was in my own neighborhood again. By the age of 16, I quit school and joined a street gang."

Earl, I made that story up, but I'll get mail telling me, 'That's my story!' We can't leave the people's history of struggle out of our discussions of reform strategy. Earl, your experience in prison is what people of color experience on the streets of the free world every day of their so-called "free" lives. But you are so right about us giving up the anger, and channeling it so we can work on our problems together.

Only when a social movement is successful do underdog losers become winners and thus able to help create new and improved social structure via the law books. That is why the civil right's movement genesis began in 1620 in colonial America when class structure - of which racism would became a foundation - began to form in our country, and why that struggle continues today. With luck and hard work we can get incremental social change, sometimes sweeping, most often small but steady steps. Successful social movements with sudden surges of reform have one thing in common-people hold hands across race and many other political lines to demand change. When there are setbacks and failure, this lack of cooperation is apparent.

Martin Luther King was pushing hard to bring the class struggle into the civil rights movement just before his assassination. "I submit that nothing will be done until people of good will put their bodies and their souls in motion. Yes, it will be a poor people's campaign. This is the question facing America. Ultimately, a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor."

For proof, spend time in a prison visiting room-the mix is mostly black, then brown, and lastly white. The idea that a great nation is a compassionate one is the right message for the middle class. Within this broad band of people we can't talk about racial profiling without a discussion of class struggle, white skin privilege, institutionalized racism and the drug war. None of this can be separated one from the other today. The drug war is the primary means of targeting select groups of citizens, and the end of profiling is the drug law violator wasting away within razor wire compounds, locked away behind steel doors. Though skin color sets the prisoners visually and physically apart, most of them share a history of poverty before sentenced to prison. Blest be the tie that binds...