Take Back America? (Race) Poverty and Policy

By Andre Banks Jun 19, 2007

Rinku Sen, the publisher of ColorLines, is on this plenary "Poverty and Politics: Katrina’s Clarion Call". In the planning stage, this session was called "Race, Poverty and Policy" which was abandoned for the coded "Katrina". "Progressives", can we not even say the word race? Arlene Holt Baker of the AFL-CIO’s Katrina response effort is moderating this morning. We’re starting off strong. One of the first remarks of the session from Peter Edelman: "You can’t talk about poverty without talking about race." But… He’s arguing that policies raising the tide of low-income people, as a matter of fact lifts all boats. Thus, he says, "race-neutral" policies lift up Blacks and Latinos. But wait, he also thinks sometimes we need to be "race-conscious," mostly to explain racial disparities. Prisons, Schools, Gentrification – his hitting them all. But what seems critical, especially at this conference, is articulating the balance between "color blind" and "racially explicit" policy reform. As a whole, our society (including the progressive movement) is obsessed with the former, which to my eyes and ears has gotten us 10 steps backwards toward nowhere. Now, Maude Herd from ACORN is getting a standing ovation. She’s talking about engaging low-income people in large and small-scale changes that effect their lives. She gave her ACORN story, which is actually really inspiring. How she came together with people in her community to make the changes they cared about. Oh a great point: in order for poor people to get noticed, a huge number of them had to speak. And as a result, they mobilized 540,000 poor voters in 2004 by knocking on 1.5 million doors, largely in swing states. Staggering. From Maud: "It made a difference. For people who voted for the first time. In changing the policies that affect poor people’s lives. And it is going to continue to make a difference….Watch out. ACORN’s in town." And now, Rinku Sen. Disclaimer – she’s my boss. I won’t editorialize and let her speak for herself. She kicked it off by making a point about the way "Race" came out of the plenary title and "Katrina" was added. This "coding" of race, she argues, is a persistent problem that pushes people away from the best solutions. Here’s Rinku: "I’m here to argue for a new way. To argue that we can be explicit. And that I have been pursuing that way for 20 years and nothing terrible has happened. In fact, we have won real victories by talking and acting for explicitly for racial justice." "Progressives see that economy is racialized. That’s not hard to show, but the response is race-silent. There are two-versions of this argument: "just leave it out" – let’s not mention race and hopefully we can sneak that law through and hope it gets signed. The second version is "we’re all in the same boat." It doesn’t matter that you see yourself as different, we have a universal solution. We don’t back away from speaking about race because we’re afraid conservatives will get latched onto race and beat us in the debate. Conservatives are conservatives, not stupid. But the racial attack is inevitable – it creates imaginary enemies that encourages people to resist advancing the common good." "The key is to go on the offensive. Racism is about the rules, the intentions, structures; it’s not about an individual’s behavior. We need to ask of our elected officials: Is this person supporting changes that will reduce or widen the racial gap?" What do we do? "Connect racial disparities to their structural causes. If we’re not telling a story about disparities, racist sterotypes fill that gap. Universal solutions aren’t solutions if people aren’t protected from discrimination. Advance a new standard for racial justice policy. People of color must see ourselves in the center of a progressive movement. The progressive movement radiates from us at the center, not from any other source…" And now… Maxine Waters, my favorite Congressmember. She’s just brilliant… leading off talking about how in the past 15-20 years the conservative movement was able to define the work of those standing up for racial justice. And as she says, the progressive community got on board by not backing up those at the vanguard standing up for poor people and people of color. On Katrina: Rep. Waters has been pushing some really forward looking policies on Katrina. She’s giving an amazing retelling of the way that Americans were forced to look at "their great democracy" and see its horribly hypocrisy. But the real problem is that people don’t know what to do. In fact, she was with Gov. Blanco just before coming to TBA still trying to develop those solutions. Thunderous applause for this one: "A child who grew up in public housing now holds the gavel in the Financial Services Committee’s subcommittee on Housing. " The first thing she did with that power was return to hold hearings in New Orleans where she heard about the way Black folks are being locked out of public housing. Her bill, which has passed the House, grew out of those conversations. The central thrust is that HUD has to create 3,000 new units by AUGUST. And it achieves a moratorium on destroying public housing. (Check out ColorLines cover story on public housing in NO). Now anyone who wants to say it doesn’t matter that the Democrats are in office need to take a long, hard look about what Rep. Waters have pushed. Her commitment, but also are her position has made such a pointed difference. Who is Maxine supporting? "I’m not supporting anyone yet. No one is talking about poverty or race….We’ve got to stop liking candidates because they’re cute. We’ve got to stop liking candidates because we’re so desperately afraid the Republicans will win. The Republicans are dead in the water. A Democrat will win. The question is which Democrat will win." Oh she is going the hell off. She and Rep. Lee are going to follow the candidates to Iowa and New Hampshire to push them to directly confront the policy challenges all the candidates have, to one degree or another, evaded up to now. Finally, Vanessa Guerringer from ACORN in New Orleans gave a really moving talk about the realities of life post-Katrina in the 9th ward. Unfortunately, the session is over time and everyone is flocking to the ballroom to see The Obama….