Monday, May 07, 2007

Conversation Recap May 6, 2007

The notes today include a proposed schedule of topics from now through the summer!

In preparation for Next Week, when we will be discussing Housing Affordability; a background document was prepared and will be emailed to members. It is very helpful background.

Well wishes to Laurie, who is out sick today.

We went through introductions, and welcomed some new folks.

We discussed the topics at the Get Smart Tacoma conference. Several concerns emerged that are enduring Conversation questions. A draft document will come out in a couple of weeks, and it will be a Conversation topic. One member who attended wrote a description of concerns, which will also be emailed. We also discussed background issues of Tacoma schools governance. Our understanding of news stories coming about the School Board review of the Superintendent was that there was a vote of no confidence in his discharge of the office. Conversation members were encouraged to pay attention to school district issues.

Some Announcements:
· The fair housing center is sponsoring a civil rights tour in Alabama: Montgomery, Selma, the voting rights museum. The trip will be in September, 3rd weekend. Flyers to follow in two weeks.
· June 2nd, there is a breakfast for getting the Bryant neighborhood association together; in the afternoon there is a meeting of the Hilltop Action Coalition. Christina has information.
· May 19, 7:30 pm, 3901 N. 37th, @ the Philbrooks’, Christy and Dan are performing. And Monday, 7:00, a discussion about getting a strong candidate to run for the school board. The announcement stimulated some conversation. Someone shared the observation that, when attending school board meetings, there is “no one that looks like me.” So there is a real opportunity to do something here.
· Eve’s retirement party is coming up June 2, 7:30. She will distribute invitations about details next week, and Conversation members are warmly invited.

The recent Tacoma Climate Survey brought up some issues of interest--through the Black Collective, there is a move to hold a rally at Central before the end of the year. And, there is a way to do something about the window situation at Stewart (before Thanksgiving, it was firebombed, which led to several windows being covered with plywood—and still are). There is an OSHA form that can be filled out. OSHA form 7, revised 9/93, is available online in .pdf format at, and in html format at, which allows you to submit the complaint electronically.

On to Moral and Philosophical questions.

With regards to Stewart situation, we may want to organize a delegation to approach the news media. As an organization, how about we approach the school district, as an official representation of the group. Thursday, May 10, the meeting convenes at 6:30, Central School (8th and Tacoma). We formed a group to do so.

Last week we discussed directions for the Conversation. The V Team, the volunteer leadership team, fills certain positions…. we originally envisioned 6 month commitments, but the transition did not happen and they have done this for a year. We will have a chance by September to fill all of the leadership slots. And, we want to have everyone in The Conversation to have opportunities for leadership. The V Team met and came up with a list of activities to propose to the group. Briefly, they are:

--We will deal with racial apologists this week. Imus v. rappers?
--Next week May 13, we will deal with housing affordability.
--May 20, Keith and others will bring us a Katrina documentary.
--May 27, Rosalind will begin a two-part session on food—including politics and food.
--June 3, continuing with food—food and health, food and well-being,
--June 17, hunger.
--June 24, a picnic on the waterfront. (through the month of July, try outdoors)
--July 1—The issue, we the people, at Peoples’ Park.
--July 8, the new immigrants’ stories. Some of this will be about evolving policies of affirmative action. Trends suggest black students born here are still being left behind.
--July 15, environmental justice, somewhere on the Ruston Way strip.
--July 22, poverty and wealth. The proposal is to go to S. 8th and J st, a small park there.
--July 29, education—esp the rights and responsibilities of parents, help them access the resources that can help their kids in school.
--August 5, continue education.
--August 12, War—what is it good for?
--August 19, spiritual rejuvinization
--August 26, activism and community organizing. Todd Gitlin’s book, Letters to a Young Activist, may be reading material for that session.
--September 2, we will look at workers’ rights.
--Septmeber 9, we will go back to racism, racism 201.

We opened the discussion to this proposed agenda. One suggestion is to have a study group, based on the Conversation, later in the week, so that those who wish to attend church can link with us. One observation about our schedule—the idea of an added piece, rather than rescheduling, is that we run a real danger of losing the people who have made this their time to do this.

We could deal with activism, and invite activists from the Hilltop area to add to the discussion, August 26.

What does it mean to be part of the Conversation? Once you show up, you are invited to participate in the discussions. We had proposed as an early model that the person doing the inviting to a new member to share with them the ground rules for discussion, and the expectations for learning about how it goes, and once one attends for a couple of times, to please feel free to chime in and become an active part.

The church issue came up. We earlier discussed how much like church should we be, and how much unlike church should be. The question is still open. If the group wants something like church, so that people would be focused both on social justice and spirituality, and spirituality for themselves, Dexter is open to that.

Back to the suggestion for a study group, at another time.

On to racial apologies: Don Imus and Rap?

The ‘90s have been called the decade of apologies—Southern Baptists apologizing for their role in slavery, Australian government apologizing for their treatment of Aborigines, Canadians for their treatment of the native peoples, the Catholic Church for its role in slavery, and so on. Dexter read from p. 246 of an essay he coauthored in the book New Approaches to Rhetoric.
“The question of racial apology has been about slavery….” The passage referred to the Clinton attempt at a dialog about race. One piece of this was the Clinton apology for the treatment of African American soldiers during WWII. Many of the apologies during that decade were group apologies. Well, does all of this talk about racism contribute to a reduction of racism? Race was one of the issues some Republican leaders made fun of. Still, talk about this “still captures the American imagination….” The passage included a quote from Trent Lott’s praise of the Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat candidacy. A state representative, Frank Hargrove, a state rep in Virginia, said black people should get over slavery—and he expanded the sentiment by saying, should we ask Jews to apologize for killing Jesus? (not a quote) The comments were offered when Virginia was debating a resolution to apologize for slavery, in preparation for the Queen’s visit. President Clinton proposed an apology for the families of the people who suffered because of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

When Clinton proposed that apology, two members of Congress proposed an apology for slavery, but it went nowhere. The United States has made redress for any number of issues—rebuilding Europe after WWII, some kind of redress to Native Americans (inadequate, yet something), for interred Japanese-Americans, and others. But, not for slavery.

Does an apology for slavery offer cover for the nation?

What is an apology of this sort? It contains in part a response to a moral charge, an attempt at redemption, or as part of a plan for change. We have heard apologies that are not apologies—I meant X, and I’m sorry you took it to mean Y. Apologia is the public declaration of a position which is meant to repair the image, usually of a public figure’s image. For both apologies and apologia we can expect to hear a simple denial (I never meant that), or people bolstering, something like ‘I am just like you.’ There is differentiation—don’t look at this thing about me, instead focus on my larger persona, I’ve done good things. Then there is transcendence, in which the speaker doesn’t address the particulars but instead asks to be judged on the larger picture of personal character. Apologies are about saving face. [Irving Goffman talked about stage in life—apologies are often backstage work, backstage where people do the dirty stuff and the cleaning up, while letting the front stage work stays the same.]

When Imus utters “nappy-headed ho’s,” where does that come from, and what do we make of it? Is Imus offering this as something that is somehow of a different status because we can point to some rapper who does this? [Michael Richards might be happy that Imus came along, and fogged the memory of his own outburst.]

A question: framing the racial apologies in the context of face-saving, and we have been doing conversations in terms of social justice…. connect the two, please. OK. The connection is, what does the apology do for the aggrieved party? (the notes above were in regard to the apologizer) If you accept the apology, one of the implications is that the case is closed. There is the Hargrove view, ‘enough already.’ That voice is going to become stronger if there is an official apology. And the apology is perhaps connected to whether there is any restitution attached to it—does an apology repair face for both parties? That is the justice question.

When it comes to a group apology, who is this ‘we’ apologizing? And in political apologies these days, justice seems to be absent. So, proposed apologies for slavery are not passed, let alone the reparations movement. Beware the construction—WWII doesn’t seem so long ago if folks want to praise the heroes, and the civil rights movement seems a long time ago if one is asking folks to just forget about it.

One rapper offered that he does not condone degrading content in music. Some of it is disrespectful, but the personal frustration embodied in some of the comments does not

One member said this is confusing—there is a larger trend about suing people, a penchant to sue others in this country. Why is that? Would it help if the perpetrator would say right out, sorry and here is some compensation right now? Must we always go demand an apology? OK, but recall also that the branch of government most open to the poor is….. the courts. And, paradoxically, it takes money to sue, so it is hardly an open door to change. A critique of our litigiousness may need to be folded into this.

One person said that, for his generation, he is in pain. His generation had to cope with lots of questions—Dick Gregory’s Nigger Bible, the popularizing of ghetto lingo, Langston Hughes ‘what drives me crazy doesn’t bother you, but I’m going to keep talking about it until it drives you crazy.’ It is hard to make the distinction between whether one likes what Dick Gregory did, and whether one is angry about what George Wallace did.

One difficulty of whites making the quick link between Imus and rappers is that it is an imagery that elides something more essential. The rhetoric of naming people as Imus did was not something rappers made up. The names were used by whites, and it is sad that whites are not part of the mass that gets outraged by it.

The truest form of an apology is to act differently.

Did people hear that Imus is suing, that he had a contract that encouraged him to be offensive, and the employers had a 7-second button that allowed them censor really unacceptable things…. and they didn’t. So, the network is on the hook, too.

We should recognize that words have power. We can appropriately look at the intention of an apology—some in the room do not see Imus’ apology as at all sincere, even quite the opposite. And, it is absurd to suggest that hip-hop and rap are responsible for misogyny or racism or violence. The roots of hip-hop were independent and a force for change. Well, we are seeing a corporate version of it now. The use of words can contribute to a system of repression…. and the public discussion of Imus does not seem to get into that at all.

One observer suggested maybe there was always a gangster element of the larger hip-hop movement, and all the things said so far about hip-hop are right on. How do apologies in this—when someone utters something like Imus did, does the apology really change anything? The inner work, the spiritual reconstruction that goes along with the apology, is perhaps the important part. And public discussions of the Imus thing do not get at this.

One observed that the many apologies over the years, even those with the compensation, do not do the job. For example, apologize to Native Americans and reach a property settlement on a treaty…. but the way of life is just gone, and apologizing and transferring some Port of Tacoma land will not bring it back. The Japanese-American internment apology and compensation did not result in a realization of the larger problem….. the roundup of Arabic-Americans after 9/11 was a version of this all over again.

The same beast that pushes Imus is pushing the rappers people disapprove of. Repentance is being sorry, but it is also ‘stop doing what you are doing.’

One offered that Imus and rappers are not the same. Sure they are in the big money media, but shift for a moment to the notion of the artist. Artists, in some major part, point out some of the interesting features of our lives. Somehow there is a loss in having this dynamic in the art. One added later, art should not be hurtful to relationships.

Back to a focus on the notion of apology. There is an element of authenticity that must exist for the apology to reach the harm, and the harmed one. If I step on your shoe, I might ask you about how to make amends. Maybe you say, forget about it. Maybe you say, shine them, please. Outside of that exchange, apology seems like a fiction.

Beware of the dichotomy implied by apology—if there is an apology, that is everything, and if there is no apology, that is nothing. Hmmmm. The bigger issues in the Imus affair are not discussed. We are not seriously talking, in the wider society, about the nature of racism, how it affects real people. This raises the issue of whether racism is supposed to be something everyone has, whether (as one expressed it) it is something that black people do not have because of the dynamics of racism here.

The immediate claim seems to be that rap is responsible for giving Imus this language. Also, let us probe the idea of apology as part of a process. What if an apology opens the way for rebuilding relationships, for repair? And, who makes up the ‘we’ who apologize? Is the ‘you’ in the apology part of the ‘we’? (connect to the Tuskegee syphilis discussion)

One of our number was a Jamaican DJ back in the ‘70s that was part of the roots of hip-hop! Several exchanges focused on the history and content of rap and hip-hop. In the course of this point, we discussed the audience for hip-hop, and the things done by particular artists. Much of this was very lively, a lot of energy in the room. (note the power of art!) And some of the younger members described the large white audience for the music. So the construction of rap being a black thing and the problem being one white guy are diversions from larger connections this episode illustrates. The comments referred to in this paragraph did not all happen at once.

The public Imus discussion seems ‘completely disingenuous’.

Recall Imus has lots of top Democrats on his show. He has always been like this, and this insult on the women playing ball is a hook for a discussion that does not much refer to the long-term existence of this dynamic. Imus has been tolerated, for a long time. His racism has been ignored, for a long time.

We have a culture of disrespect, it is everywhere. It is too normal. Another added that we use “politically correct” as an insult, when there is a large part of it that is simply a matter of being respectful. We circled back to this a couple of times in our deliberations.

One visitor to England said that racism and the popular music are both thriving there. And added it would be nice to send out some good messages to the rest of the world. Several people offered their experiences with artists.

About a year ago, a conversation at the Race & Pedagogy planning meetings, it seemed there was a conspiracy to sustain and support a certain order; and that as creative expression occurs it is appropriated to sustain and support a certain order. One observed that Elvis was not the Creator. Rock, blues, hip-hop, R&B (some dispute over whether Michael Bolton actually claimed he never heard R&B) have all fit into this pattern.

More on the role and responsibility of artists. Among the reasons we have arts—expression of the human experience. Artists express joy, pain…. and some take on power structures, and say things about them. When things are coopted (recall the Elvis and Big Mama Thornton versions of Hound Dog) it is a loss of that energy, and can help blind us.

One member offered a distinction between art and entertainment.

Back to the issue of apologies. Group apologies are problematic…. does my group apology mean the same to all of the ‘we’ inferred? Do all of the aggrieved accept they have received an apology? We should recognize there is agency for the nation when the top official does it. And note that when the Congress arrives at consensus at an apology, some vote against it. It is offered as a starting point.

It is 11:35…. As we talk about art we want to be careful about what we call art. For example, most black expression has not been recognized as art. Mainstream media don’t notice quickly—back to the Elvis example, what black artists were doing for 20 years did not exist in the wider world until Elvis brought it into the living rooms of white America.

How we move toward justice is a thorny thicket. On the reparations issue, for example, maybe only 20% owned the enslaved, all white members of society were invited to participate in the benefits of a society based on slavery. Who gets reparations, and the nature of the connection between harm and compensation, are complicated. The question of who owned, who was hurt, can actually be tracked down. And can the connections between this and current harm visited on people (like the people sitting in Gitmo who were placed there via bounties), need to be continuing topics of conversation.

People, these conversations are about spirituality. Few churches in Tacoma are coming close to talking about some of the justice issues raised in the Conversation.

One person shared that the Get Smart Tacoma conference was a bit frustrating because of what was not said. There was no conversation there, for example, about apology; or about how education has perpetuated institutionalized racism. There were plenty of politicians there, and the audience was on the homogenous side, and no connection to the achievement gap summit, no mention of the Race & Pedagogy conference. The voices for these things were silenced.
How do we get this kind of conversation, this quality of engagement, to a larger number of people? If we believe that more people ought to be here, can we devise ways to make it happen?

And one added a plug for the solo voice—it is often the solo voice, who did not wait for the masses to gather, that individual initiative, that energizes beyond its original location, and brings about a change.

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