The Master’s Tools

Writer and commentator Will Shetterly has some rather original things to say about racism.

“If we fight racism, we’re accepting the enemy’s battleground and the war will last longer. I think the way to end racism is to ignore it and fight poverty.”

In the context of Katrina, race and class are on everyone’s minds; poverty and wealth are even being discussed in the mainstream media in a way entirely new to that venue. The tone in which the media discusses race may also be shifting, perhaps ever so slightly.

Our government has a mixed attitude about racism. Racism certainly exists at all levels of society, and at the same time, pressure against (overt) racism does exist. When Trent Lott is caught making an overtly racist remark on tape, he’s forced to backpedal and pretend he didn’t mean it. There’s a place in the government for Condoleeza Rice and Al Gonzales (the Attorney General) and Norm Mineta (the Secretary of Transportation). They weren’t appointed by accident. Nor is it an accident that the Bush administration actively courts middle-class voters of color, and tries (without much success, we’re pleased to say) to drive a wedge of privilege between them and their working-class and poor counterparts.

Fighting poverty is profoundly necesary, even though it is not sufficient. Fighting poverty is a goal our government gave up on more than thirty years ago; by now, there’s effectively no social pressure, outside of progressive circles, to make any concessions away from the strictly Calvinist view that poverty is poor people’s fault and poor people’s problem. From Clinton’s despicable welfare bill to Bush’s war on Social Security, the message about poverty is absolutely consistent: if you’re poor, you did it to yourself and it’s not your government’s problem.

Race and class are deeply conflated in this country. In terms of absolute numbers, many more white people are poor than people of color; white people get most of the welfare money (such as is left), most of the food stamp money, etc. In terms of percentages, many more people of color are poor than white people. And in terms of perception, as a nation we present poverty as if it were the problem of people of color. And there is no doubt that if we were to return to a set of social values that puts the responsibility for the country’s poverty on the shoulders of all of us, that would help many people of color.

So Will has a point.

And then there’s the other truth: Racism has always been used to divide people from other people with common interests, and it’s a very useful tool. African-American poet and writer Audre Lorde, self-described “Black lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” said, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” Divisiveness is one of the masters’ primary tools: the struggle for justice for all calls for not dividing our priorities, but for seeing all aspects of respect for human beings as part of the same whole.

So as long as racism isn’t just about poverty, we can’t discard one struggle for the other. Look at the composition of the nation’s prison population, and you’ll see that we imprison people of color disproportionately even without looking at income level. (Yes, we also imprison poor people disproportionately.) Ask anyone who has been stopped for DWB (Driving While Black) whether a nice well-maintained car protected them from police harassment. Put a name like L’Tisha or Alfonso or Ahmed on your next job application and see how many employers call you.

Racism and poverty both exist, and they frequently exist in tandem. And they’re both, as Will points out, very much about privilege. If what we are striving for is “liberty and justice for all,” working against poverty while ignoring racism won’t get us there.

3 thoughts on “The Master’s Tools

  1. I agree Will Shetterly has some good points. Clearly some people are disadvantaged and get the short straw in times of conflict. The number of people and straws make a difficult nest to untangle. Ignoring and addressing directly both have their hazards. Unity would have to work better than partisan in-fighting.

  2. When Laurie told me about Will¹s blog, I started to argue that he was substantially correct. Having read his whole post and some of the preceding argument, I think he is dead on about the way race is used to obscure class issues – especially to the white majority of the poor. But I do have issues with the idea of ignoring racism.

    Telling an African-American or Native Americans to ignore race is telling them to ignore the experience of their lives. Telling Appalachians or Southie Irish to ignore ethnicity or class is the same. It ain¹t gonna happen.

    What you want to do is build coalitions in which people set aside the
    distractions of racism et al to front poverty. This is very
    difficult.

    The American Greens (where I was very active from the middle 80¹s to the middle 90¹s) worked hard on the question of race and poverty, among others. What can be extracted from the current census figures is not a new pattern.

    The Greens wanted to build a truly inclusive progressive movement, and succeeded in many ways on ideology, but remained (and remain) a predominantly white middle-class group by the numbers.

    What we were told very clearly by groups and people we approached, as well as “minority” folk in the Greens, was that you cannot ask a marginalized group to set aside that which marginalizes them. Black, Native American, Appalachian, working class whites … the contingent reality of their lives does not allow it. They know poverty is a key issue. It¹s at least second on everybody¹s list.

    I teach “at-risk” high-school kids in Oakland – mostly Black, but also
    Hispanic and South Asian (Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer). They have serious mental, social and physical health issues that I know happen in wealthier (whiter) communities. But the better-off kids, as a group, get earlier interventions, better treatment, and more resources thrown at them.

    I personally do not believe that racism would “wither away” if poverty were eliminated. But I¹d love to be wrong, and I sure as hell would prefer to work against it without the depredations of deprivation.

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