Thursday, August 13, 2015

Got Privilege?

My first visit to Louisville, Kentucky was in the late-eighties. My father (who was then chief of police in Westbrook, Maine) took our family on a road trip to Kentucky to attend a police convention. I even invited a childhood friend (whose dad was also a cop). As kids we thought police were cool. COPS aired Sunday nights on Fox, I dressed-up in my dad’s old uniforms, and played ‘cops and robbers’ with children in the neighborhood. I even skipped school once to watch one of those corny Police Academy movies. This was the world I knew and, like my white privilege, this upbringing socialized my perspectives on the world.
        The second time I visited Louisville was in March 2015, this time I was there to examine and challenge this socialization while attending the White Privilege Conference (WPC) with Dean Mary Watson and some colleagues from The New School.

The WPC is a gathering of students, educators, social workers, administrators, members of faith organizations, lawyers, and, yes, police. Dr. Eddie Moore held the first WPC in Iowa in 1999 and has been meeting in cities throughout the US ever since. When I spoke with Dr. Moore before the conference, he told me when he first thought of the idea, people advised him to “Change the name to something more palatable like the ‘diversity’ conference.” Critics decried that the powerful title 'white privilege' would invariably turn people away. This has not been the case. Over the years, the WPC has become more popular. At this year's conference, there are close to three-thousand attendees. (Admittedly, some locals I encountered in Louisville were confused by the title, thinking it was a conference encouraging white supremacy.)
        According to its website, The WPC “offers solutions and team-building strategies for anti-racist organizers to work toward a more equitable, just, and humane world.” Attendees gather to learn about power, privilege, and oppression in not only America, but internationally, and (perhaps toughest of all) internally. This was to be a strikingly different experience from my childhood trip to the city of bourbon and BBQ, but one I was glad to have had to reflect on when considering the ongoing discriminatory practices of law enforcement against black lives alongside the militarization of police throughout our communities. What seemed cool as an ignorant child now seemed perverse and unjust as an adult.   
A week before the WPC, President Obama spoke from Selma to commemorate and honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in which civil rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama State Police when attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th 1965. The President said, “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done – the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.” 
      Part of the work happening at the WPC was just that - to give purpose and to inspire the work of future generations to not only learn about the specious tenants of racism, but to develop ways of dismantling them as well. The WPC creates a safe place for people to openly discuss and understand race and privilege. Like any other conference, there were inspiring keynote speeches, informative workshops, performances, film-screenings, and lots of networking opportunities. But one of the more challenging (and unique) aspects of the conference was at the close of each day when attendees broke-up into their respective 'caucuses' - white people met with whites, black people with blacks, asian people with asians... Each caucus was led by a trained facilitator. The point of the caucuses were for people from similar racial groups to freely talk through what they had learned and/or were having trouble understanding. 
      I was surprised by the amount of ignorance evident in my own white caucus. I assumed most people here had already done some anti-racist workshops. Of course, many were well-intentioned liberals -some who had, yes, done the work to understand their own privilege, some volunteered time in underserved communities. Nevertheless, it became clear even the most well-meaning whites (myself included!) have a lot of work to do.  
      To be fair, these attendees were at least working to understand and challenge their prejudice and privilege. Most white people prefer outright ignore their advantaged position in society. We are oblivious to these benefits and often refuse to even acknowledge that white supremacy has been with the United States since its inception and (despite the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, the election of the first black President, etc.) is still alive and well. 
White supremacy is expressed in America explicitly (through the attacks and violence we continue to see against black bodies by domestic terrorists or perpetrated by the state through the hands of authorized police) and implicitly (through unjust voting laws, lack of access to equal-opportunities like education and jobs, to racially biased mandatory minimums alongside our profitable prison industrial complex.) Bigotry, racism, and fear continue to deprive people from engaging in any politics to realistically address the role systemic racism and white supremacy play in the creation and perpetuation of this American empire. 
      As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, man in this country, I take so much for granted. Consequently, my perspective and experience with race is limited, because I have the luxury  of ignoring it. I must work to understand, address, and curb my own internalized racism, which appears in my socialized mind as externalized racial superiority. (i.e., “If you’re white, you’re all right.”) If I hope to enact any real change in this world, I must start with myself. I must recognize that this system has -through no fault of my own- advantaged people like me and disadvantaged others. This oppression has always been both unfair and hypocritical. What is my fault is when I don’t call this system out, or worse, reap the benefits from its ongoing existence. 
      Talking about race can be tough; especially, for white people and yet, white people are almost always racially comfortable. This comfort becomes accustomed, expected, and entitled. Dr. Robin DiAngelo defines this as 'white fragility'. Accordingly, when white people here the phrase ‘white privilege’ they often take umbrage because they only hear ‘privileged’ whites – this is a common defense mechanism socialized into us. 
      Whites often feel the term ‘white privilege’ somehow delegitimizes their own struggle and adversity (i.e., “I came from poverty. I worked hard! My family and people had it rough too!”) True. No one can ever fully understand where each of us came from, nor the struggles we traversed to get here; however, to ignore structures that have benefitted and continue to entitle some, while blatantly discriminating and attacking others is not helpful for any of us. Most importantly, no matter who we are, white supremacy keeps us all in poverty.
      Accordingly, we must begin to dismantle the systems that continue to keep so many of our brothers and sisters in chains. Much of this work will need to be done in our communities, together (i.e., "We the people, united, will never be defeated.") And as we approach an election year that is already shaping-up to be a lively one, we must recognize #BlackLivesMatter will and should continue to disrupt these proceedings so as to ensure our presidential candidates not only address the need for Racial Justice but provide concrete policies and proposals on how they will makes this an integral part of their administration.
President Obama also said from Selma, “action requires we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.” Obama went on to reject the notion that “nothing has changed.” He continued, “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic, or sanctioned by law and custom; and before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was. We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties.”  
       Agreed, things have changed; however, the work is never complete. And, to be fair, many experience racism in this country as something 'endemic' and there is still, racism that is 'sanctioned by law' in this country. Accordingly, I hope we can shift our perspectives toward humility and away from narcissism and fear. We need to learn about other people’s experience so as to work collaboratively in creating a more just and equitable society. Most importantly, we must do this work from a place of love. 
      After all, this work isn’t -as WPC keynote speaker Loretta J. Ross warned- “about calling people out. This work is about bringing people in.” Indeed, let’s bring more people in and let’s also lean in to the difficult conversations - unafraid of making mistakes as we grow together. We must acknowledge our racial, ethnic, and religious differences through not only the adversity but through celebrating our identities as the “joyous explorations in ambiguity” that they are.

Friday, May 22, 2015

This Changes Nothing...

Not much has changed since Naomi Klein published her book in Fall 2014, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Instead, a dire situation only continues to deteriorate. That same week, world leaders gathered at the UN to set goals to “reduce carbon emissions, strengthen climate resilience, and mobilize political will.” They were also there to agree on an ambitious goal to limit the rise in global temperature by no more than 2-degrees Celsius in the coming years. Three-hundred-thousand also took part in a People’s Climate March to show solidarity with those fighting on the frontlines against the extraction industry. Later that same week, hundreds of activists “flooded” Wall Street, to draw attention to the ways our economic system continues to place profit above the needs of not only this planet but the survival of everyone on it. Indeed there was much education, energy, and emotion driving “climate action week.”  Many were poised and ready to do more.
But, frustratingly, there has been no abrupt, sweeping change to anything, let alone everything. We’re still consuming and polluting like we have multiple eco-systems to spare. Sure, there have been moderate steps taken in the right direction, and lots of awareness concerning the science of climate change, but nothing close to what is realistically needed to begin rolling-back the inevitable effects of our industrial-era binge. Climate change will happen and is happening. Just because this winter was the coldest on record throughout North America, does not mean it wasn’t the warmest globally. The weather is getting wilder and weirder. So, how will we adapt?
It is inspiring to read about the noble efforts and hard-won victories from the Climate Justice Movement. For instance, environmental activists worked alongside indigenous communities to succeed in blocking the development of the XL Oil pipeline. Universities (like The New School) and cities have divested from fossil-fuel companies. The state of New York (standingwith four European countries) agreed to ban hydraulic fracturing. Students, activists, educators, and yes, even entrepreneurs continue to remain committed to enacting real change. Nevertheless, despite these wins, the climate justice movement suffers no delusions about how difficult it will be to truly change everything.
Small victories have taken place, but they do not outweigh the surge of ongoing developments that continue to challenge and damage the limits of our environment. While the climate justice movement rallies in the streets and takes the fight to the courts, the extraction industry and its powerful influence ensures valuable interests and profits are protected. For example, while we debated the XL oil-pipeline, the United States added 11,600 miles of pipeline over the last decade, increasing its capacity by a quarter.
What is most troubling about Klein’s book is the sheer magnitude of the change we’re tasked to collectively make now, so as to potentially delay the collapse of civilization. Extreme weather patterns throughout the foreseeable future are inevitable, what is frightfully unclear is how humanity will react. Likely, obliviously, and stupidly – there is no denying a horrible truth staring right back at us – our stupid, wasteful ‘stuff’. Human consumption, and all its many incantations of flavors, needs, and demands, consumes at an insatiable, unrelenting pace and doesn’t seem to abate. Sure, we can talk a good game about climate action: reduce, reuse, recycle, plant a community garden, but we’re still locked into a trajectory that does not bode well for our ongoing survival.
Robert N. Stavins opines about “Climate Realities” in The New York Times. He writes, “In theory, we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change with an intensive global effort over the next several decades. But given real-world economic and, in particular, political realities, that seems unlikely.” Unlikely indeed; for instance, although the U.N. has set a goal of keeping global temperatures from rising no more than two-degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, China alone “is expected to add the equivalent of a new 500-megawatt coal-fired electric plant every 10 days for the next decade.”
And what of the extraction industry, which remains steadfast in pursuing profits at whatever costs? As Bill McKibben made clear in his 2012 essay, “Global Warming’sTerrifying New Math”, one of the greatest challenges facing the Climate Justice movement is finding a way to convince the most profitable corporations in the world (e.g., ExxonMobil, et. al.) that they will need to leave at least 80 percent of the carbon they have claims to in the ground. Meaning all that property and resources investors are counting on cannot be touched. How can we convince these companies (along with their multi-million-dollar lobbying firms) to just walk away from trillions in wealth?
McKibben’s cautions that "to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million (ppm) to below 350 ppm. Right now we're at 400 ppm, and we're adding 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Unless we're able to rapidly turn that around and return to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering tipping points and irreversible impacts that could send climate change spinning truly beyond our control."
It is difficult to comprehend how climate deniers continue to have any clout. It seems like every month a new report is published communicating the urgency and irreversibility of the real changes that will in fact change everything. For instance, just this week, NASA published a report indicating the likelihood that the Larsen B ice-shelf would break-off and melt sooner than initially predicted. This also tends to be the frightening trend of any updated climate report - the predictions are always adjusted, but never in the affirmative, only to further perpetuate a presumably hopeless situation.
Perhaps this is the reason it is so intoxicating to fall in-line with the climate deniers camp? Ignorance (or oblivion) is bliss. Better to pretend everything is okay; especially, if you're privileged enough to benefit off the valuable resources of this planet. But what happens when the effects of climate change begin to really affect our communities? It's easy for Americans to ignore the affects of climate change when it is happening over there, but when the waters begin to rise in Miami, water becomes increasingly scarce in Los Angeles, and New York City swelters through extreme summers and braces for winters with "super-storms", deniability would be laughable if the subject wasn't so depressing.
When talking climate change, conversations tend to display a wide-range of emotions: dismissive, extreme, cynical, outright refusal, etc. Accordingly, this is because there is one thing that remains the same for all of us, climate change affects everyone, thus it is inherently personal (whether we admit it, or not). Naomi Klein explains that This Changes Everything was the toughest book she has ever written. As a recent mother, Klein wrestles with raising her child in this “the age of extinction.” But despite the grim realities facing future generations, Klein remains hopeful. Her time spent with activist and indigenous tribes fighting the extraction industry (i.e., “blockadia”) helped her “to imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak.” But Klein leaves her reader with the sense that the climate justice movement will need to ready itself for a broader battle.
Accordingly, Chris Hayes warns in his essay, “The New Abolitionism”, That “there is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy. No use trying to persuade people otherwise.” In the same issue of The Nation, Naomi Klein again connects the struggles of the Climate Justice movement with consumerism. She writes, “Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy… At its core, [this] is a crisis born of overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the world’s most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.”
Of course, consuming less is not a phrase in the lexicon of multi-national corporations making billions off the continued abuse to our ecosystem, let alone the millions of first and developing-world consumers demanding the comforts of modern industrial living. As natural resources such as our air, water, and soil continue to become unsuitable for the propagation of life on this planet – religions, communities, and ideas will fight to survive. The wealthy will try to protect themselves and their property through security systems and isolation. But no one will be exempt from the repercussions of our industrial-era actions.
Despite all this, think tanks, lobbying firms, and institutes are all pushing efforts for broader fossil-fuel exploration alongside, continued exploitation of the local communities in the way of corporate interests. Humanity has become the key causality of late capitalism. For instance, consider the Hudson Institutes recent report titled, “Energy: The West’s Strategic Opportunity in the Eastern Mediterranean”, which outlines the “geostrategic significance of the middle east.” The report draws attention to recent hydrocarbon discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea and goes on to encourage ‘the west’ to unlock the “economic and geostrategic benefits of the East Med’s energy potential.” The bulk of the report reads as a warning to ‘the West’, which must pro-actively (i.e. militarily) “secure” interest in the region, or lose all that valuable fossil fuel to another regional player. This report is just an example of the many delusions intoxicating the structures of power that determine the fate of our planet.
I would like to believe our species is capable of reasonably confronting this huge challenge. But I also fear this is an unrealistic and idealistic lie we tell ourselves. Can this really be the subject that mobilizes people enough to create a catalyst for a just and equitable society as a whole? Likely not... But if we could, if there is to be hope, we must present and develop viable economic alternatives to the extraction industry. As Klein writes, “One way or another, everything is going to change. But at least for this moment, it is still up to us to contribute to this change and what it will look like.”
The climate justice movement has a costly and difficult task ahead of itself. It is no wonder many are already suffering from burnout. In order to make the changes required to potentially slow the effects of climate change, the international community must work collaboratively and cooperatively – two qualities hard to imagine in this volatile geopolitical landscape. Even if we reduce emissions, regulate the extraction industry, and everyone is engaged in a lock-step effort to enact real change, the planet is still poised for a wild and weird ride.
Still hanging on…