By Nora Callahan, Executive Director of
The November Coalition
Lesson from a loser - because sometimes
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
"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
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...