You want a safe space? How about Yale College, 1924.

Thomas Chatterton Williams joins a long line of whiners complaining that taking basic steps to make our public and academic life more inclusive is Just. Too. Hard.  In his review, entitled “Does Our Cultural Obsession with Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy,” he argues that it is “fraught” for marginalized people to object to the appropriation of their language or to the use of their bodies as metaphors.  He describes an allegedly new generation of college students who “are ‘obsessed with safety,’ which they define to include expansive notions of ‘emotional safety.’”  He asserts that this “safetyism culture” started when this generation “began arriving on college campuses in 2013.”  These students apparently have the audacity to want respect, to want a classroom in which their existence, freedom, and standing as citizens is not open for debate.  Oh the drama!

You want safe?  I’ll show you safe.  I’ll show you a truly fucking safe college experience — 89 years before 2013.

When it was time for my white, Christian, Southern,* formerly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-fucking-privileged, two-generations-away-from-enslaving-people grandfather to go to college, he found a very, very safe space.** In 1924 — according to a story my father often told*** — Yale College accepted the entire graduating class from Hotchkiss, my grandfather’s prep school.  Talk about safety schools!

Image: Yearbook photo of a white man with brown hair in a suit and tie. Text reads Arthur Clendenin Robertson. Age 19. Yale College. Home address: 12 Coolidge Hill Rd., Cambridge, Mass. Prepared at: Hotchkiss. Activities: Hawaiian Trio, Freshman Cabinet Dwight Hall.  What Granddaddy found when he got to Yale must have felt very safe, too. His entering class of 823 students had (::checks calculator::) zero women.  It also had:

  • one (1) Black student;
  • by my very unscientific count (*cough* lastnames *cough*) approximately 20 Jewish students;
  • one Armenian-American (again, per my unscientific analysis of the guy’s last name);
  • one Greek-American (same), and
  • one (likely) Syrian-American (same).

The “Yale Freshman Yearbook” for the Class of 1928 claimed that the class included six “foreign” students, which turned out to be six white guys who happened to be living outside the country when they were accepted at Yale, for example, Willard Tisdel Hodgsdon from Guatemala, and George Robert Carter, Jr. from Hawaii (remember the year!).  And of course a token Canadian — so diverse!  There were no students with names that appeared to be even remotely Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, etc.).

If the Yale class of 1928 was not safe enough for Granddaddy, he could always retreat to his fraternity or, if that was still too diverse, to his “secret society,”  Skull and Bones.  There, I said it.  A bunch of white guys with weird rituals whose childish need for safety, sorry secrecy, was so profound that my father warned us NEVER, EVER to so much as say the words “skull and bones” in front of my grandfather.  Guess this made our family an “emotionally safe space” for Granddaddy.

This cocoon of unisex, monoracial safety was the default setting for the American university for most of our history.  These white dudes did not have to encounter classmates with different gender, racial, cultural, or linguistic experiences.  They did not have to worry that speakers invited to campus would call their very existence a “disease” or “a disorder comparable to sociopathy” or explain that they were genetically inferior to individuals of a different race.

Sometime between 1924 and 2013, colleges began to integrate.  My guess is that, for much of that time, female and minority students were (and were expected to be) sufficiently grateful just to attend college in the first place that they did not dare or did not know how to demand a space that respected their existence.  By the time I started college in 1978, we were griping about the white male canon and marching for divestment from apartheid.  Even then, though, I don’t think we gave much thought to how welcoming we were to students of different backgrounds.

But let’s examine the whole “safety” thing from a broader perspective. White people’s need to feel safe has given us lynchings, the modern police state, and BBQ Becky.  A white woman felt emotionally unsafe in the presence of Emmett Till.**** His penalty was not cancellation of his speaking tour or criticism in the college newspaper.  It was violent death at the hands of a white mob.

Do students from marginalized backgrounds demanding respect at university “spell the downfall of democracy.”  Oh hell no.  They will help us build a democracy that is truly democratic. But I’ll edit Williams’s question and answer in the  affirmative. “Has White People’s Cultural Obsession with Safety Almost Spelled the Downfall of Democracy?”  A resounding yes.

****

* I’m not really sure how he ended up with a Cambridge, MA address.  I think I know the story, but it’s not really important.  He was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family with deep roots in the south.

** I hate telling this story.  Granddaddy is not who I am.  Within his generation, the family fortune was lost in the Depression and he was a very deeply flawed, highly entertaining failure.  My father, also a privileged WASP, married my mother, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family, and my public school upbringing in the DC suburbs was a far cry from Hotchkiss.  But who am I really fooling?  I went to a small liberal arts college that my aunt and uncle had also attended, and then to Yale Law School, which my father had attended.  My path, too, was plowed by white affirmative action.

*** My father often told this story because he lectured widely on employment discrimination and specifically affirmative action.  He would explain “you want affirmative action?  Let me tell you about Yale’s admissions policies in 1924.”

**** Edited.  I originally wrote, “Emmett Till made a white woman feel emotionally unsafe.”  As Anita Cameron pointed out, Mr. Till himself did nothing.  His accuser ultimately confessed that “she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats.”

You know who I feel bad for? Alger Hiss.

Alger Fucking Hiss.  Egghead State Department bureaucrat thrown in jail for his fairly tenuous Soviet contacts.*  Also Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Lester Cole and others blacklisted in Hollywood for Communist “sympathies.”  Pete Seeger — my musical hero — who was a member of the Communist Party and went to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Image: middle aged white man in a suit jacket with a banjo case over his shoulder.

Pete Seeger arrives at court for sentencing with his banjo over his shoulder, April 4, 1961. Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002709318/

Every schmuck who was called before HUAC and stood their ground or didn’t.  Every government employee — like my Grandpa Clarence Blau —  whose loyalty was questioned for the job they held, a newspaper they subscribed to, a meeting they attended, or a petition they signed.  Every American whose FBI file Herbert Hoover created and padded.  Everyone who was ever on the receiving end Joseph McCarthy’s or Richard Nixon’s bloviating.

We were terrified of people who read newspapers or sang songs or attended meetings full of other newspaper-readers or song-singers.  We made people’s lives miserable and ruined careers based on false and flimsy allegations.

Hell, I’m sort of sorry for the Rosenbergs, even if they were guilty.

Why do I feel bad for the entire spectrum — from pale pink to bright red, from folk singer to spies?  Because none — not one — of those individuals stood on stage before a worldwide audience and handed over our country to the Russians.

*****

*According to my Granddaddy Clen, Hiss was framed by Whittiker Chambers.  Granddaddy probably had a rip-roaring case of OCD, undiagnosed.  He spent much of his adult life gathering files and articles, creating maps and timelines, and filling stacks of 3×5 cards about this conspiracy.  This will mean something to approximately 16 living humans.

The straw ban is the white liberalest thing ever.

Image: two drinks sitting on a wooden picnic table: a beer without a straw and a margarita with a straw.The effort to ban plastic straws is everything that’s wrong with ableist white liberalism in a nutshell:

  • It’s a policy built on emotion
  • about animals
  • that solves a tiny part of an enormous problem
  • by imposing on a marginalized part of society
  • without listening to the lived experience of those folks
  • letting big corporations make bold declarations of solidarity
  • without holding accountable those and other corporations that cause the real problems.

The disability rights movement needs names for ableist dorks equivalent to “Becky” and “Chad.”  Suggestions?

Update:  I love the suggestion of “Wally” the White Ableist Liberal.  Thanks, MontanaBradley!

Dos and don’ts of building an inclusive Democratic party.

Image: photo of woman with brown skin and shoulder length brown hair in a striped shirt, facing the camera smiling.As I’ve written before, I was a very enthusiastic about Saira Rao’s campaign for Congress in Colorado’s CD-1.  She ran on a progressive, inclusive platform, and received endorsements from a wide and diverse range of people and organizations.  Her opponent — the incumbent Diana DeGette — was, IMHO, out of touch and did not really give a rat’s ass about civil rights and, in my specific experience, disability rights.

 

Rao was working hard — and successfully — to make the Democratic Party the inclusive party it needs to be to move forward.

On Tuesday, Rao lost to DeGette, but got 30% of the vote — having started six months ago with no name recognition.  It was an amazing, energetic, inspiring campaign, touching the lives of people who had given up on the Dems as a relevant force in their lives.

It would have been the perfect time for DeGette to reach out to Rao and her voters.  That’s what we so desperately need in these frightening, divisive, Trumpian times.

But no.

“It really didn’t turn out to be a very strong challenge, did it?” DeGette said in an interview Tuesday night.

Seriously?  I’m not sure DeGette could have found more alienating words if she’d stayed up late and hired Alienating Words Consultants.  This is now *not* to build an inclusive party and how — in more purple districts — how to alienate the coalition we need to win in November and in 2020.

But the good news is, Saira Rao and her supporters are not going away.  She’s starting to organize for 2020 and will keep working for progress in the meantime.  Sign up to join her and keep track of this inspiring new political force.

Vote for Saira Rao for Colorado CD-1

I’m writing to urge you to vote for Saira Rao in the primary for our CD-1 representative.  Ballots are due tomorrow (drop-off and other info here:  https://www.coloradodems.org/resources/faqs-answered-for-the-primary/) and I wanted to make this last, important pitch and to urge you to read Neeti Pawar’s article here:

https://medium.com/@neetip/we-deserve-better-eae018ad520b

Neeti Pawar is a brilliant and tireless Denver civil rights lawyer.  Her experience, described in the article, was consistent with our experiences over the years of our current representative deeply NOT getting disability rights, the area of law I know and care the most about.  As has become much clearer in recent days, we are living in increasingly dangerous times — especially for people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized people.  We need a representative who gets this and acts on it, not one who sidesteps civil rights as “not her issue.”

And if health care *is* Rep. DeGette’s issue (as her staffers indicated to Ms. Pawar in the linked article), we — as civil rights and civil liberties fans — have reason for concern.  Rep. DeGette signed into law a bill that imposes Electronic Visit Verification, a system that will require Medicaid recipients and their aides to wear electronic monitors to make sure they are getting and receiving services.  A more intrusive and infantilizing system I cannot possibly imagine.  It is one that has members of the disability rights community very concerned about privacy and autonomy.

Interestingly, in response to outreach by a local pro-DeGette attorney, she responded that she “has always fought to pass legislation in support of disability rights, including stem cell research.”  This underscores her cluelessness.  Touting work on behalf of stem cell research as a disability rights position is exactly precisely not getting disability rights.  It’s saying “I support making people with disabilities not disabled anymore.”  Stem cell research is a great cause; it’s just not remotely a disability rights cause, and anyone for whom that is a go-to response doesn’t get it.

Ultimately, my pitch to vote for Saira Rao may seem like an odd ask in this particular year, as she is a Democratic woman running against an incumbent . . .  Democratic woman.  So she won’t flip a House seat or overthrow the patriarchy (yet). But after having the chance to meet her and speak with her, I believe she is what we need the most:  a better Democrat.  A Democrat that can help us build a future party, powerful and inclusive, that will leave the Republican cavemen behind.  A Democrat who will inspire people of color, people with disabilities

I’m pasting Ms. Pawar’s entire article below.  Please read.  Please share.  Please vote.

 

We Deserve Better

By Neeti Pawar

I saw the images of Diana DeGette traveling to Texas purportedly to assess the conditions in which immigrants are being detained. Many are thanking her — it makes me livid.

We tried to tell her. Me, personally, and many others. Like my friend and tireless immigrant rights activist and attorney Christina Brown who’s been on the front lines of the abhorrent conditions of family detention recently reminded us: “I’m glad people care. But I’m bitter. We screamed so loud in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017…and no one listened.”

No one listened.

I’ve told my story to some; my friend Saira has told it to many. For her it was the last straw to a series of her own experiences in being taken advantage of and then ignored by the Democratic Party establishment — her breaking point in deciding to run for congress to unseat the 22-year, 11-term incumbent.

I had spent several days at DIA when the first Muslim travel ban issued. I witnessed a handful of immigration attorneys passionately and determinedly ensure no family would be lost in the system or turned back without a fight. None were Muslim, none were South Asian. But they cared so deeply to defend against the injustice.

A few days later I attended what was promoted as a “town hall” meeting with my CD-1 Representative, DeGette. I submitted detailed questions online; when I arrived, I was told those questions were just for data collection, that she wouldn’t be answering them. There were cards to write questions — so I wrote them out again. I was told they would be used to identify “themes” and not answered.

The town hall was held at the Police Protection Association building. A location which was marginalizing in and of itself — consistent with the pattern of being out of touch with many of her constituents; or worse, intentionally reinforcing their oppression (this is how systemic racism and oppression works).

The “town hall” was a prepared power point presentation about the Affordable Health Care Act; no questions were taken. Out of growing frustration of my representative’s failure to address the crisis around immigration that was actually occurring in her district and state (Muslim ban, ICE raids, and ICE trolling courthouses and communities), and as one of very few people of color in the 1000+ audience, I disrupted. I stood up and asked my representative to address the crisis and state her plan to protect the obvious next target — DACA status individuals.

My Representative’s response: That she wasn’t aware of any raids, and outright condescending dismissal that DACA status people were at risk; blind unsupported assurances that no one was coming after DACA. She didn’t want to hear it; she didn’t listen. She literally scoffed at my suggestion, at my “paranoia”; suggested I was part of the problem because I was fueling fear mongering; overreacting. She didn’t listen.

On my way out, one of her staffers asked me to meet with her to talk about my concerns. I scheduled a meeting and met with her and another staffer at the Denver office. I shared my background, my experience and my concern, my connections to marginalized communities. I wanted to help. I wanted to give my Representative information from communities whom she was not hearing from. Her staffers nodded in agreement with the frustration. I was hopeful, until they related to me with resignation: “civil rights just isn’t her issue.” That her focus is on health care. It was clear to me: my representative didn’t see that that health care is civil rights. She was clueless to the interconnectedness of all issues and didn’t want to even try to be inclusive around issues of equity.

Stunned, I left. She didn’t want to listen. She didn’t think this was something she was responsible for. She had a long-standing active community member in her office wanting to help. To organize, to educate, to volunteer her time. To help her use her platform and power to get ahead of the issues we knew were coming. The writing was on the wall. She didn’t care.

She didn’t care. She didn’t listen.

Over 1 ½ years later, she’s now traveling to the US/Mexico border. To “see for herself.” It’s too little too late. It’s insulting to those who have been on the border for years, making personal sacrifice to their personal wellbeing, their financial wellbeing, placing strain on relationships and careers. The detention facilities have been in existence for years — under her watch, under both a Democratic president and the current president. She ignored it. And she ignored pleas from those who “screamed so loud in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.” And she didn’t listen. A report on ICE’s practice of family detention was issued in 2016 recommending DHS discontinue the general use of family detention. She did nothing. I expect more from my representative than merely signing on to letters. I expect action.

The public outrage over the recent policy to separate children from families finally got her attention. It was all of us, the people, who reacted loud and vigorously to ultimately pressure the administration to reverse the policy of separating children from their families.

She failed those who needed her most. Now, after the crisis is full blow in the *public eye* (because let’s be clear, the dehumanizing practice of family detention has been happening for years), and during an election year, she now decides to say something. To use her most secure seat in the country, her 22 years of “coalition building,” her “experience” in office, to finally do something. And what does she do? She does what she always does… she leaves her post. She has to “see for herself.” She “co-signs” legislation — co-signing means another representative does the work, writes the bill, gathers the support, builds the coalition. And DeGette allows her rubber-stamped signature to be placed among her colleagues. That’s what co-signing means. It takes nothing, no work, no political capital; it’s the opposite of leadership.

Is this the best she can do in 22 years?

She should have listened.

We deserve better.

Updated 6/26/18 to add responsive information.

These cute puppies want you to vote on Tuesday!

Image: close up of fluffy golden retriever puppy looking into the camera.This cute puppy says: Get out and vote on Tuesday! Vote for Saira Rao! Vote for Cary Kennedy! We can have better Democrats, starting this fall, and continuing the blue wave in 2020. But it starts this Tuesday, June 26, here in Colorado, when we have the privilege of voting for some pretty amazing progressives:

These women are our future.

Remember all those times you held your nose and voted Dem because wtf they’re better than Image: another cute golden retriever.the alternative and, you know, The Court! The Court! I feel like I’ve voted for a lot of centrist mediocrity on those grounds. Bill Clinton. Al Gore. John Fucking Edwards fer pete’s sake. And Hillary Clinton, too. And here in CD1 in Colorado, I would dutifully check the box for Diana DeGette every two years because, well, why not? A reliable D vote and no viable alternative, but also no discernible fucks given about the communities I give a fuck about.

And I spent a lot of time trying to talk my more progressive friends out of doing dumb things like voting for Ralph Nader* or Jill Stein. Those things remain dumb, and I remain right, but I also felt that they had a point; that we had a lot of entrenched, white, privileged, mediocrity** carrying the D flag year in year out. At worst, this silences and alienates voters of color, voters with disabilities, and other marginalized voters; even at best, it bores the crap out of everyone, until our eyes glaze over and we . . . just . . . don’t . . . vote.

{Image: A golden retriever with a goatee of snow around his mouth.}No más! Throughout Colorado and the nation we are getting the opportunity to elect better, more progressive, more enthusiastic Dems. Dems unafraid to call bullshit. Dems willing to call out racism, sexism, cronyism, and mediocrity. And then do something about it. Here are just some highlights:

 

But none of this happens — our bright future of a more progressive, more grassroots, more activist Democratic Party doesn’t happen — UNLESS YOU VOTE!

This is our future!  Let’s all get out and
VOTE! THIS TUESDAY!

Image: Golden retriever puppy sticking her tongue out at the camera.

******

*Love you, Robin. Miss you, Laura.

** Into which category Nader and Stein emphatically and ironically fall.