Thursday, January 30, 2020

Thanks For "Listening"

Earlier this week I attended two local events billed as opportunities for civic engagement. I am still trying to decide if they were a waste of time. One was a “listening tour” of a state non-profit organization that serves as a liaison between Colorado government and a handful of other non-profits concerning disbursement of lottery funds to outdoor recreation and protection projects. Attendees did most of the listening, to presentations outlining updates to the goals of the organization. The other, larger event was a mostly one-sided panel-and-moderator discussion of the future of urban growth in Colorado Springs. The two forums did open my eyes to something I had been blind to, though. We collectively fail time and again to accommodate, let alone welcome, marginalized parties, at least in meaningful numbers.


The attendance, and leadership, at both events overwhelmingly reflected white privilege, and mostly on the elder end of the age spectrum, too. That this has become what I expect is a tragedy in itself. I am modestly proud of myself for starting to notice, finally, and not being happy about the lack of involvement by people of color.

The urban growth event was so heavily weighted towards seniors that one of the speakers was the Colorado head of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). It became a running joke that each of the panel members, five of them, all white men, were either members already, or had recently received an invitation to join AARP.

What do I mean by white privilege in the context of the attendees in civic engagement events? Simple. We have the luxury of free time. We are not working a second or third job, or a second shift, in the late afternoon or evening when such events take place. We have the luxury of at least a modicum of disposable income for communication technology, and to fuel our vehicles to drive to meeting locations. We enjoy the advantage of not being hassled by law enforcement when we show up in locations where non-whites would be met with suspicion, if not hostility. We are able to understand everything being said at meetings because English is our first language. We know our opinions will be met with respect from our white peers, and that no one will question the authenticity of our experiences because they are shared by others. You can probably add additional points to this bullet list.

Oh, I already have another one. The “listening tour” did provide an opportunity to take a survey….by texting. I have a flip phone with less than instantaneous speed. Luckily, a paper-and-pencil option was available, but increasingly there are assumptions made as to the minimal level of technology utilized by citizens. This further marginalizes people who cannot afford those devices, wireless networks, and other supposedly universal products.

The responsible growth forum addressed Colorado Springs and El Paso County, an area that is expected to exceed Denver in population and geographical urban footprint in the not-too-distant future. The only thing worse than unbridled urban growth is growth for whites only….but that is the direction we are headed if we continue to prohibit equal participation in public conversations like this event. I will give civic leaders the benefit of the doubt and suggest that overwhelmingly white participation in public policy-making processes is not by design, but it still reflects a willful ignorance of the factors limiting participation by non-whites, and those who do not speak English.

The treadmill process that yields white privilege authority figures occurs when you have white privilege participation in all civic matters from voting to public hearings and meetings, resulting in the election of white privileged public officials, who then assume their constituents all enjoy the same circumstances as their white privileged benefactors and supporters….In instances where a person of color is elected or appointed, white privilege still colors their agenda, still enforces the boundaries of any meaningful reforms that could result in broader participation and increased leadership by people of color. Shameful.

Does it make me a “white savior” to be pointing out these systemic problems, these unquestioned attributes of institutional racism? I hope not, as that is not my intent. I am sharing my personal observations and interpretations, not putting words into the mouths of others, even fellow Caucasians. We have to start stepping back, take supporting roles, and even then, only when invited to do so. The irony is that all people will benefit and advance from diversity in leadership. I am supremely confident of that.

Monday, January 20, 2020

We Still Have a Long, Long Way to Go

On this day of celebration of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at least one journalist is daring to point out something that demands earnest reflection, appraisal, and commitment to a different, better future. Jenn M. Jackson, in Teen Vogue, assesses a “whitewashed” legacy that does not do justice to the radical agenda of Dr. King. It is unfortunately an appropriate expression for this day and age, when it appears we have slid backwards.

As a Caucasian male myself, I recognize I have no right to pretend to know what any individual historical or contemporary black experience is like, nor define the boundaries of rights and expression for an entire race. What I can do is listen better, get a firmer grasp on the extent of my white privilege, support and advocate for black leadership roles in all arenas, and be willing to sacrifice in ways that might make me uncomfortable. No one should be living in constant fear for their lives, no one should view their future as limited in any regard.

Many of us Caucasians, including truly well-meaning individuals, equate racism with white supremacy, period. That was pretty much my own logic until relatively recently. Then I learned about institutional racism, cultural appropriation, and white privilege. Does it make me uncomfortable when someone points out that I am privileged just for being white? Yes, of course, because I was born that way and there is nothing I can do about my physical appearance and genetic makeup. Thankfully, that is not the only thing that defines me, and I have the freedom and ability to become more empathetic, by choice.

The first step on that road to empathy is to stop defending yourself as a white person. Pause to listen to voices you are have ignored previously. Not everything is about you, but it is often reflexive to assume a comment about your white privilege is accusatory or at least personal. Mental and emotional re-training is never easy, as any recovering addict can tell you. You and I are going to be works in progress, emphasis on work.

Black History Month will be upon us shortly. The media will tend to focus on figures of historical importance, in roles we do not typically associate with blacks. There are scientists and doctors, artists and writers, inventors, athletes….They will be referred to as “exceptional,” but the implied emphasis will be on “exception,” because the expectations of white privilege are so narrow when it comes to other races. You do not get a pass simply because your expectations of black people are not in the thug, drug dealer, or welfare queen categories.

We seem to be comfortable with black people as either entertainers (including spectator sports) or servants. There is that word “comfort” again. This is one race defining what is acceptable for another race, and you should personally have no tolerance for that. Collectively, we should find this kind of racism abhorrent. It is no better than assuming a black male is a criminal or out to take your job through Affirmative Action.

Am I making you squirm by suggesting you have more in common with a confederate flag-waving white supremacist than you thought you did? Good. That is the only way we are going to get anywhere, by confronting our own biases that we did not know were biases, because no one looked that hard before.

We have to be open to criticism, sometimes delivered with hostility, from those who have suffered and continue to suffer, even if we are not personally responsible for that suffering. Then we can begin to alleviate that pain through self-examination, increased empathy, and truly beneficial action.

The celebration of life for my late father was held at his favorite place, a yacht club. I remember it from my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is still just as old, white, and male as it was back then. It pained me that I could not call out the membership right then and there. Maybe I should have.

I remember driving through Over-The-Rhine, a black neighborhood in Cincinnati, with a friend on a summer day. She asked in a rather concerned tone why black people were on their stoops, out in the street, some loud music here and there….Back in the 1990s I did not have an answer, nor did I think it was an unreasonable question. Today? Today I would ask her “Why aren’t (white) we out on our stoops, out in the streets, enjoying the day with our neighbors?”

What are your experiences and expectations and assumptions? Why are they that way? Please, start asking yourself.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The U.S. Economy is a Dysfunctional Ecosystem

Economies might do well to emulate at least some aspects of biological ecosystems. Our American economy has somehow managed to magnify the undesirable characters of ecosystems while failing to adhere to the fundamentals that make such systems work. Meanwhile, our economy is undermining natural ecosystems that are the foundation for the economy.

Before I proceed farther, in accordance with a recently self-imposed personal law, I must disclose that I fall into the category of white privilege. It is important to remind myself that however I perceive my own circumstances and point of view, my status, for lack of a better term, is still greater than it should be when compared to other demographics that are not Caucasian nor male nor straight, and so forth. We need to hear those voices also.

How can one claim that economies are in any way like ecosystems? There are many similarities, but the most obvious is the idea of niche. Ecosystems are full of niches, each occupied by one or more species. Some, mostly plants and marine algae, are producers that take energy from the sun and convert it to biomass. Other organisms consume those plants, while still others feed on the first tier of consumers in what is properly known as the food web. Decomposing organisms help recycle deceased organisms back into the soil.

Economies are full of niches, too, but all of those niches are filled by one species: Homo sapiens. Niches in economies are called “jobs,” but it goes beyond that if only because, increasingly, one person may hold more than one job such that they can have the ability to consume more (or break even). Further, machines are filling more and more niches formerly occupied by persons as a result of automation. Society functions best when we do not limit the definition of an individual to their occupation. Human economies are more than simple transactions involving goods and services, they involve investments of intangibles like emotions and social capital.

The most profound similarity between ecosystems and economies is currency. The currency of ecosystems is energy, pure and simple. The currency of an economy is money. The only way an ecosystem functions properly is if energy flows freely, cycling ceaselessly for the benefit of all organisms. There is very little banking of energy, at least in the short term. Look at water and carbon in the natural world and they cycle endlessly.

Meanwhile, in the American economy at least, money is not viewed as energy. It is seen as power, and therefore hoarded, failing to flow as it should, despite the claims of those who subscribe to “trickle down” economics. The tap is perhaps dripping randomly. Worse yet, it is often only those in the white privilege category that receive any sustenance at all. This causes a cascade of negative effects that further erodes the economy. Entire segments of society are left without niches to fill, and therefore no way to participate in any part of the economic cycle, from production to consumption.

Among the negative side effects of an exclusionary economy is the rise of predators, parasites, thieves, and other criminal enterprises. While predators, for example, are one category of niches in natural ecosystems, there should be no place for them in an economy. When crime becomes a survival strategy, it is time to re-think the structure of our economy, question our aspirations to gratuitous material wealth, and tolerance for continued economic injustices.

One insistence of capitalist economies that is completely incompatible with natural ecosystems is the idea of infinite growth as the ideal. There can be no such thing, as human history has demonstrated repeatedly with the collapse of one civilization after another. Failure to accept the finite nature of natural resources, and/or partition them responsibly, has led to the fall of many empires, and it would appear that this is now a genuine threat to the entire globe.

Markets, like the biosphere, are also finite, despite efforts to expand them. Furthermore, while we claim allegiance to the idea of the “free market,” there is in reality no such thing. Were it true, then the U.S. auto industry, multinational banks, and other American corporations would have failed by now. Instead, we prop up those businesses artificially through government bailouts, tariffs, and other subsidies as corporate welfare that is deemed acceptable while social safety nets are allowed to unravel or are intentionally dismantled.

What does all this mean? It means that we need to look more critically at how we live our lives, what constitutes our premiums (Convenience? Value?), and perhaps seek to align our economy more with the functioning of the natural world. It is not a question of prosperity versus austerity, unless you are the ultra-privileged and your idea of austerity is one less yacht.