Rinku Sen’s Facing Race Conference Opening Remarks

By Rinku Sen Nov 18, 2008

Continue to second part of the video and a transcript of the speech Welcome to Facing Race 2008 Last week, like many of you, I celebrated the election of the first person of color as President of the United States. Many of us were together four years ago, at the Race and Public Policy conference, which was the predecessor for Facing Race. Then, like now, we had hundreds of people register after the election. But that was because we were all depressed and wondering where we could go from there. Today, the possibilities seem endless. We’re going into this conference with great opportunities, as well as enormous challenges. People are questioning the supposedly innate wisdom of the free market in a way that they didn’t even after Enron and other corporate scandals. Americans are demanding a government that is transparent and accountable. They’re responding to the message that real change starts and ends with all of us, that we are capable of saving ourselves with heroic feats of fight back. We have the opportunity now, not just in victory but also in the crisis behind the victory, to put out our biggest ideas, to build real support for them, and to move all our institutions. But there are huge challenges as well. Our people are really struggling. For the last two months, I’ve been traveling around the country with Fekkak Mamdouh, the coauthor and hero of my new book, The Accidental American. The book is about immigration, restaurants and the economy, and so we’ve heard many stories of stolen wages and deported loved ones. In Portland, Oregon, I met a young man who stuck in my mind. He’d been browsing the architecture and design books at Powell’s when he overheard me reading, and he hovered at the back until we finished. His name was Artemio, and he’d been brought to this country when he was six. That was 12 years ago, he said, and now I’m illegal so I can’t study or work. He asked about lawyers, and I answered. He wanted to know if I thought he could handle the process himself and I had to tell him that that might actually get him deported, and then he wouldn’t be able to come back for ten years. There is no real process for someone like him, and he might have to wait until a new law passed. When would that be? he asked me and of course I had no idea. During our travels, Mamdouh has told his own stories of organizing restaurant workers, both immigrant and native-born, in the largely black cities of New Orleans and Detroit. In New Orleans, black workers who are making their way back to the city years after Katrina find themselves shut out of the restaurant jobs they used to have, even though there are more restaurants now than there were before Katrina. People are living under highway overpasses because they have nowhere else to go. Sometimes I hear us say that if get bad enough, then people will rebel. This election outcome appears to support that idea. But I worry that as things get worse, the energy for change could go underground. In order to contribute their full selves to movement, people need to not be working three jobs, losing their homes and or spending all their time paying off student loans. We can’t wait for things to get worses. People need us to keep moving so that they can get their legal status, find decent jobs, keep their homes and live out their potential. That young man I met at Powell’s might be the next Maya Lin, but as things are, we’ll never get the chance to find out. Barack Obama was elected on a promise of hope and change, but we are in an enormous economic, military and social crisis. This isn’t a time of prosperity in which people are feeling like there’s lots to share. When crisis hits, both human beings and countries tend to close ranks and shut down. Our public officials will start hoarding supposedly on our behalf, unwilling to share what little they think we’ve got. So, we are likely to see proposals for change, but with somebody excluded because they’re not seen as deserving of that change. Those people will be presented to us as too lazy, too uneducated, too foreign or too freeloading to qualify for the jobs of the grand new green economy, or the benefits of universal health care, or the opportunities of a fully funded education system. Sometimes our electeds will tell us they don’t believe these things themselves, but that exclusion is a matter of pragmatism, the only way to get something through a bipartisan Congress. Our job then is more urgent than it’s ever been and that is to insist on the fulfillment of all the possibility we felt last week. Complacency will be our biggest enemy. It’s inevitable after a big success like last week’s. We won’t think we’re feeling it. We’ll talk about keeping the pressure on, and making the new Admin keep its promises. But complacent behavior will start creeping into our daily lives. Some of us will become really internally focused, spending all our time making sure that our organizations are managed well, surviving the economic crisis and dealing with the competition and infighting that crisis often generates. Others will become really anxious, and in our anxiety keep extremely busy, frantically running from meeting to meeting and complaining a lot about how busy we are. Neither complacency nor anxiety will ensure that each of us does something important every day to move us toward real and lasting change. The antidote to complacency is a deep and urgent sense of purpose, keeping our gaze fixed on our ultimate goal, a fully inclusive society, economically, culturally and politically. That sense of purpose will help us know what’s a false promise and what’s real, which fights to take up and which to let go of, which compromises require a small protest and which require all the resistance we’ve got. That sense of purpose is going to keep us together when people we trusted not to try to divide us. This political moment calls for our biggest ideas. It calls for demanding expanded civil rights, a federal guarantee to a good education, a health care system that includes undocumented immigrants, an economy that operates under entirely new rules, an immigration system that eases peoples’ movement rather than restricts it. People will call us crazy and impractical, but we know that these are actually the most pragmatic policies if our goal is making life better for everyone. We have to make our ideas stick not just by rigorously working out all the technicalities but also, especially, by speaking to people’s deepest values. The best way to push out our most transformative ideas is going to be by using our skills to first arouse the heart, and then arouse the brain. People don’t start by analyzing the world, they live in it and feel it, so we have to start with that ourselves. We have lots of new tools to work with. New technology makes it possible to tell our stories directly, without filters, and to be connected to each other in ways that I couldn’t even imagine ten years ago. There’s threat here too. Media, tech and politics have merged, and it all moves at the speed of light. If we can’t keep up, we’re going to be left behind. And the people we represent can’t affort to be left behind. We need to be out in front. Because the political, cultural and technological moment calls for both new ideas and new tactics, we have made some important strategic shifts at the Applied Research Center. In June, the ARC staff and board decided to make our media work the engine of this organization. We’re going to popularize the need for racial justice and prepare people to fight for it, largely by finding new ways to tell the stories of ordinary people and the structures that shape their lives. We’ve been moving in this direction for a long time, and many of you have used or contributed to ColorLines, Racewire or our multimedia products. We’re taking this step because we want to take our ideas to scale. We know that there’s a huge constituency for racial justice in this country and in the world. We are committed to providing a home for that constituency in all its diversity, of race, of issue, of gender, of sexual identity, of age. Whatever you do to fight structural racism, whether you organize, march, write, teach, make music, argue with your friends, or email your Congressperson, ARC will provide a community that will help you do it better. We’re going to use the media and technology to build and maintain this home, and you’ll get some previews of our upcoming experiments here at the conference. We encourage you to go to media, arts and technology workshops as well as the issue workshops. We’ll be using some fun new features like our text message instant polling process. And all of you who are dying to be on camera will have plenty of opportunities to record your thoughts for posterity. People who aren’t here will be able to catch highlights. We have just experienced one of the most incredible moments in US history. Moments like this call for a historical perspective, and I’m getting mine today from the abolitionist and suffragette Sojourner Truth. There are two speeches she gave that aren’t as famous as her Aint I a Woman speech, but that I find really instructive. The first is from the 1850’s, before the Civil War. A white man at one of her lectures told her that all these talks she gave amounted to nothing more important than a fleabite. Her response was, “Maybe so, but Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” I feel like this is where we’ve been until Election 2008, keeping the nation scratching until they finally voted for some relief. The 2nd quote is from a speech Truth gave in 1867 to the American Equal Rights Association. The Civil War and Emancipation had resulted in Black men getting the right to vote. Black women had to have it too, she knew, so they could make full contributions and not be beholden to anyone. “I rejoice for you,” she said to her brothers that day in Washington, “I want to keep the thing stirring, now that the ice is cracked.” The outcome of this election signaled that it is possible to overcome both personal prejudice and structural obstacles to unite people behind hope and real solutions. We didn’t crack that ice by ignoring racism and refusing to talk about it. We cracked it by out organizing and outpacing those who figured that racist assumptions would carry the day. We did it by gathering up every young person, every new citizen, every first time voter to signal their belief in a new way. We did it by convincing people that racism was not going to help build the country that they wanted to live in. Now it’s time for us to keep those people, and ourselves, stirring so that we can go the rest of the way. That’s the work in front of us, and it starts right now.