Bum Raps, “Bubbas”, and Affirmative Action

Bum Raps, “Bubbas”, and Affirmative Action

with Julianne Malveaux

The image, self-esteem and activism of African American women were the subjects of a wide-ranging conversation, arranged for On The Issues by Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D., host of a Washington-based syndicated daily talk show on the Pacifica radio network and author of Sex, Lies, and Stereotypes: Perspective of a Mad Economist. Malveaux invited attorney Barbara R. Arnwine, the executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Ramona Edelin, Ph.D., president of the National Urban Coalition, a social policy laboratory, into her living room for a lively exchange, which began with the stereotypes of African American women projected in recent Congressional debates and in rap music lyrics, and concluded with insights into coalition strategies that might more effectively unite African American women and all women as a more potent political force for the twenty-first century.

Ramona Edelin (center) and Barbara Arnwine (right) met in the living room of Julianne Malveaux (left) for a warm, and sometimes heated, conversation.

JULIANNE MALVEAUX: I think that all progressive people have been very amazed at the 104th Congress and the damage it is doing to social policy as we know it. But African American women, in particular, have been vilified by this Congress as alligators, wolves, people you wouldn’t leave your cat with. What kind of signal does that send to the rest of the country?

BARBARA ARNWINE: The conservatives of the 104th Congress are pimping two images. The African American woman is being demonized as a “welfare queen” who sits at home, has too many children, and causes all of America’s economic problems. And “Bubba,” the honest, hardworking, blue-collar white male, is portrayed as angry because affirmative action has put him out of work. Both of these images are dishonest and disturbing.

MALVEAUX: They make it seem that if you just fixed the African American woman…

ARNWINE: …there wouldn’t be these teenage pregnancies and America would have a balanced budget. And that’s certainly false. For one thing, only 17 percent of African American women are on welfare. For another, the teenage pregnancy rate is actually falling for young black girls, while it’s increasing for white girls. And when we look at the budget overall, welfare is the least of our economic problems. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the welfare program most under attack, accounts for less than one percent of the budget.

And furthermore, the white male who is most angry is not “Bubba.” When you look at the polling data on affirmative action, the group that’s angriest about alleged preferences are professional white men. They haven’t necessarily lost jobs to women and/or minorities, but corporate downsizing has made them anxious and they believe that they’re entitled to keep and dominate the best jobs. So Bubba is a smokescreen.

Part of our role as African American women is to expose the truth. Let’s have a public policy debate about the real issues. If we are going to reform welfare, which does need reform, let’s reform it in a way that really makes a true difference in the lives of the women, the children, the families who are on it. And if we’re going to talk about affirmative action and preferences, then let’s talk about preferences in our society in general. The problem is that no one asks to hear from African American women, so our voices are absent.

MALVEAUX: And African American women leaders are constantly dissed. Jesse Helms had the temerity to sing “Dixie” in the elevator to Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun. Florida Congresswoman Carrie Meek was called out of order for daring to question Newt Gingrich’s book deal on the House floor.

ARNWINE: At the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Fannie Barrier Williams made a famous speech and said, “We black women find ourselves in the unfortunate position of being defenders of our name.” That role continues today. When the Glass Ceiling Commission asked white professionals about how they saw African American women, they listed “cheap, immoral, promiscuous, unreliable” the same old, tired stereotypes that Williams was fighting 100 years ago. It’s amazing how tenaciously racism has shackled African American women to these stereotypes.

MALVEAUX: A lot of your work with young people, Ramona, is in leadership training. What do you tell young black women about this appalling behavior on the political front?

RAMONA EDELIN: We begin by giving the young women and men in our programs a historical, intellectual framework. The period we’re in now is comparable to the period of Black Reconstruction after the Civil War, from 1870 through 1895, when there was a rise of hate groups like the Klan, vilification of African Americans, disenfranchisement through terrorism, and the dismantling of the brand-new legal structures supporting political and social equality of freed slaves.

During this period poor whites could not resist the seduction of the planter class. They fell for the notion that, “If I could be just like the man at the top, it would be all right,” and voted against their own economic interests. So while the freed slaves, the abolitionist movement, and the embryonic organized labor movement could and should have come together, they did not because of smokescreens similar to the ones we see today. Coincidentally, the legislators who were most aggressive in turning back Reconstruction came from Georgia. And today, here is this son of Georgia up here representing this very same set of forces.

Somebody remarked that Newt and his crew want to turn the clock back to the 1950s, but I’m afraid that they want to turn the clock back to the 1850s, when we were in slavery. Once we show young people the historical parallels, they have a certain grounding and understanding that I think is helpful.

MALVEAUX: So the “divide and conquer” tactics of the past are at work again. But we’re also divided among ourselves. Rap music is one of those divisive issues. It’s not as significant as, say, the black unemployment rate, which is double that of whites. But rap has galvanized lots of attention. The National Political Congress of Black Women is really taking on Time Warner and the rap industry about the images of black women they put out there. And our young people come back to us and say, “Excuse me, but you’re not understanding where this angry rhetoric is coming from.”

ARNWINE: Ramona and I might disagree on this, but I think the excuse “That’s my cultural expression” isn’t good enough. I think that kind of cultural expression needs a change. African American women and girls should be able to turn on the TV and not have to see images of themselves only as gold diggers, rolling their bodies and trying to entice a man. This is how African American women are portrayed in those videos. I have some little cousins who are rap artists and they complain about how a kind of censorship operates against their work. They might want to do a song about how they feel about the schools and the teachers and what people should do about education, and they are told by the music industry executives, “Oh, no. That’s no good. Give me songs about those good bootys!”

MALVEAUX: So you end up with the Perdue approach to black women: You don’t see a whole woman in these videos. You see a butt, a breast, a thigh. It clearly objectifies us, but at the same time our young sisters are into that beat.

ARNWINE: Part of the way gender dynamics works in our society is that women are taught to denigrate themselves, just like blacks are taught to hate themselves. What happens is that young women, like everybody else, emulate the behavior that they see most frequently. So I think that it’s good that there are women who protest these images. The problem for those young cousins of mine is how they can make a living and become successful artists without being exploited.

EDELIN: Well, that’s an age-old problem. I have young adults in my own family with whom I have listened to rap for a decade or more. Gangsta rap is a fairly recent development in the rap genre. The music of young adolescents is cyclic and always changes. If you let it play itself out, it moves on. What’s important about rap in my view, and the reason that I don’t dismiss it, is that it portrays the social and economic realities of these young people’s lives, especially their relationships with the police, which are hostile, even lethal in many instances. They are recounting the story of what goes on in their communities. So I have used all of my energies not to attack our own children, but to try to change those conditions in which they live.

ARNWINE: Rapping and signifying, as people call it, may be as old as the African American community itself, but I don’t care if they are doing operas with lyrics about hos [whores] and bitches, I protest.

EDELIN: Wait a minute now. There is a distinction to be made: Even rapper Snoop Doggy Dog says, “My manager is a woman. My mother is my primary partner. I’m not talking about women in general.” But there is such a thing as a bitch and a ho, which grows out of his experience with poverty. There is such a thing as a girl in the hood who will turn you in for a two-dollar bag. That’s who they’re talking about.

MALVEAUX: But the lyrics talk about things like rape and gang rape. The fact of the matter is that they systematically denigrate women as a category.

ARNWINE: Right, and they need to stop.

EDELIN: But in the genre itself, they are not talking about all women.

MALVEAUX: I once shared a limo with a rapper who told me he had never met an economist ho before. The young man thought he was being funny, but I told him that he had still not met a ho and his best bet was to keep his mouth shut. There’s a blurring, Ramona, between the music and the reality. When you look at, for example, Tupac Shakur–he has music that is very conscious. On the other hand, a young woman goes to his hotel room — which may have been poor judgement on her part — and she gets abused. She has written a letter in VIBE magazine where she talks about what happened. If her account is to be believed, she was raped — gang-raped.

ARNWINE: I think that our so-called political gangsta rappers who are doing this, who think that they are challenging the system, need to realize how they’re playing into it in a lot of ways. When you look at the record sales, they are crossing over in a big way into a lot of white communities.

EDELIN: That’s when people get concerned about it.

ARNWINE: So are the white children buying it because they think they are getting a hip attitude? Or are they are buying it because it is exotic? Or are they buying because it drives their parents crazy?

Ramona Edelin -Republicans look like the
best-organized, smartest people on the planet
because their agenda is simple: Gather all
of the wealth into the fewest possible hands.

EDELIN: They’re buying it because they’re kids. Every generation’s adolescents have their own form of rebellious self-expression. As black women leaders, one thing we can bring to the discussion of rap music and other issues is our absolute understanding of the indivisibility of us all as Americans and as citizens of this global village. Fifty years ago, we were the first to cry out about illegal drugs being imported into our communities. Nobody cared as long as just our communities were affected. Now that it’s a raging epidemic and this is the biggest drug-using nation on the planet; everybody’s concerned about it now. We can talk about safe and affordable housing, public education, police violence, and crime. We’re the first to cry out, but nobody listens. Well, at some point, somebody is going to begin to see a pattern there, and they’re going to start listening before it’s too late. At some point we’re going to be in the position to provide that leadership that grows out of having all these experiences ahead of the curve.

ARNWINE: In some ways, the current struggles that white women and men in America are going through in gender relations have lagged behind those of black people. African American women were brought here to work, and after slavery we still kept working. We kept working even after World War II when white women were told “Go back to the house, get out of the work force.” The African American man has always been dealing with the fact that the woman has her own paycheck. He’s had to contend with conflicts about wanting to be “head of the household” when she has more money than he has. White men are just getting there and in coming to grips with it they are generating all this cultural confusion.

MALVEAUX: What about the fact that there are so many single-parent households in the black community? Even among middle-class black people — employed African Americans with higher incomes — you find lower rates of partners.

EDELIN: Look at the historical roots in our patterns of education. For my great grandparents’ generation, getting the girls out of white folks’ kitchens, where they might be raped and abused, was a priority. They felt a son could take care of himself, even in the fields, but you had to get a daughter in school before she came of age. The college attendance rate for women is still very high in comparison to young men.

MALVEAUX: But historically, that didn’t make a difference in mating. You often had the schoolteacher married to a postal worker and she had a degree while he didn’t.

ARNWINE: And you still have that. Partnering patterns are changing for all of society, as women have become more equal and less reliant on the men’s income. It’s changing not only in America but also all over Europe. Once again, African Americans are out there in front of the trend.

MALVEAUX: After the Clarence Thomas hearings, an essay by Rosemary Bray published in The New York Times Magazine talked about our being divided against ourselves as black women — always having to make the choice between race or gender. Was our loyalty to Anita Hill, who told a story that all of us could identify with? Or to Clarence Thomas, who invoked lynching, the most powerful metaphor to African Americans? How do we sort that out? Or is it a dilemma at all?

ARNWINE: I think that the issue of race and gender does play out in very hard ways for African Americans. Somebody asked me the other day whether domestic violence wasn’t the same issue for white women and black women. And I said to them: Yes, in the sense that both black and white women are hurt, abused, humiliated, and kept in mental slavery by the men who play those games. But in the context of law-enforcement response: No, domestic violence is not the same issue for black and white women. Black women are concerned about whether or not they might get beaten by the police. Or that they might not even come. No, they’re totally different issues from a law-enforcement perspective…

MALVEAUX: Some sisters will not call the police because they feel the police will come in and beat up a black man…

ARNWINE: …in fact, kill him. So that’s part of the dilemma for African American women, too. African American women cannot have equality as women unless you deal with race, and they can’t have equality as African Americans unless you deal with gender. We need a mature women’s movement to deal with these complexities. White women’s organizing in this country has not yet evolved to where it touches and galvanizes the majority of white women. I think it’s a real challenge to get there.

EDELIN: For 30 years now white women have asked in a rather blaming, castigating way, “Why aren’t black women a part of this movement?” I say, we were part of the women’s movement before it dawned on you.

MALVEAUX: We had to bust into the line at the Women’s Equality Day March in 1970. When they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, white women did not encourage black women to be part of it. Our sorority, Delta Sigma Theta — we just waited and then busted into the line. We wanted to make sure that it was clear that black women, too, had worked for women’s suffrage. Do we still feel that we are busting into the line of the feminist movement?

EDELIN: It’s gotten better. But I’m concerned that white women are still asking the wrong questions, so they’re bound to get the wrong answers. As I’ve said to white women I’ve worked with on a number of projects, if we’re going to have a bona fide coalition then we have to see you in line with us when race and class are on the table. Then we’ll know you. We won’t have to come over here and meet you for the first time when you get ready to have some kind of demonstration about women’s issues.

ARNWINE: When I was preparing my testimony for the Glass Ceiling Commission last November, I was trying to figure out what kind of policies and programs corporations had in dealing with African American women. So I called one corporation, which I won’t name, and asked to speak to the glass-ceiling coordinator. And they gave me the coordinator, who said, “We have the best program in the country” and so on and so forth. I said, “That’s really wonderful. Now have you found that these policies operate differently for African American women?” “Oh,” she replied, “if you want to talk about African American women, you need to talk to the race people. We deal with white women.”

EDELIN: That’s how it always is. If the discussion is about women then the presumption is that you mean white women, and if the discussion is about African Americans, then the presumption is that you’re talking about men.

MALVEAUX: Is affirmative action an issue on which the African American community can come together with progressive white women to push for a more equitable division of the labor-market pie? The Glass Ceiling Commission says, for example, that 95 percent of those Fortune 2000 senior jobs are male and 97 percent of them are white. This, of course, means that all women are sitting at the periphery.

Barbara Arnwine-NOW’s Ellie Smeal came to us
something about affirmative action and we want
your advice.” Now that’s a big change.

ARNWINE: There are two obstacles I see to the majority of white women uniting around affirmative action. One argument that effectively stops many of them is, “It’s going to be your husband who’s going to suffer and lose his job.” Then there’s the fundamentalist focus on what a real woman’s role is, and the guilt trips about the damage women are doing to their children by being in the workplace. Instead of being proud, some women see the fact that they are working as a burden and a conflict, when what’s really wrong is that the society does not support employed women by making sure that mothers are not left to be sole caretakers and that children have proper day care.

The challenge is to galvanize white women progressively so they can see that affirmative action is in their best interest–indeed, in the whole country’s interest — and that it’s something they have to be concerned about. If you notice, part of the game that’s been played by “Newt and Company” is to break down our society’s sense of community — to convince people that your neighbor doesn’t really matter as long as you’ve “got it going on.” So in my speeches, not only do I talk about affirmative action benefits to women and how they extend to white men who draw on some of these women’s incomes, but I also talk about how racial hatred and self-interest as sole criteria can exist only when you have a breakdown in the sense of community–when you’re not your brother’s keeper.

EDELIN: What I’m hearing for the first time from African American communities is, maybe we should refuse affirmative action. Maybe we should be asking for reparations and put the issue on another footing altogether. Let’s talk about how affirmative action is falling short.

ARNWINE: And let’s correct the mythology around affirmative action. Few people realize that affirmative action is, in fact, a haphazard policy that has, for the most part, been voluntarily adopted.

MALVEAUX: Conservatives make it sound like it means hiring one of those brothers from the gas station across the street to do surgery…

ARNWINE: Underneath everything in this society, there is an underlying racial dynamic and there is an underlying gender dynamic. They are woven into the fabric of society. Whites have never really taken these dynamics on systematically.

EDELIN: And so we have preferential treatment for white males.

ARNWINE: They say they want people to be hired on merit. But an Urban Institute study showed that if you send in an equally qualified black and an equally qualified white, employers will still choose the qualified white over the black. That’s not merit. I was talking to a reporter just before I came here, and he said, “Well, Ms. Arwine, what did you think about the poor Asian kid who had better grades and can’t get into Berkeley because of the black affirmative action policy?” And I said, “You would never have asked me what I think about the poor Asian child with excellent grades who can’t get into Berkeley because of the veteran’s preference program which mostly benefits white men.”

EDELIN: Or because of football scholarships.

ARNWINE: It’s not preference programs that bother people. What drives people up the wall is race. Because race has been strategically used in this society to divide people so that those in control can maintain control. It’s been used to divide women from women, black women from white women…

EDELIN: Actually, to divide all minority groups from each other.

MALVEAUX: It’s interesting that despite the denigration of black women that we see in the popular culture, some surveys show that young black women have higher self-esteem than young white women, regardless of achievement or occupational advancement. In middle schools and high schools, black girls don’t have the same preoccupations with body image or the same problems with anorexia and bulimia as white girls. What do you think that’s about?

ARNWINE: I think it’s fascinating. One of the things that our society has gotten hip to lately is African American women’s power. Black women have always had a sense of personal strength, but it has been exploding in the last ten years. You go to a bookstore now and there are these bestsellers by black women for black women, like The Company of My Sisters, Sister to Sister, and Tapping the Power Within. Black women are into understanding and tapping into who they are. I think it’s a wonderful development as long as it’s not someone sitting in the corner doing a mantra about herself…

EDELIN: …and not connecting it to the rest of the community.

ARNWINE: I agree that we have to be very conscious and very careful about a “me-ism” trend. But some of the recent opinion data are particularly interesting: Black women express more personal satisfaction, although African American women are also the least happy specifically about their wages, their salaries, their chances for promotion. So, how do these two findings correlate? Well, there’s the tradition of our foremothers of “making a way out of no way.” Or spiritual sayings like, “People can call me what they want to, but there’s somebody who knows my name.” We have a tradition of standing outside of the rest of the culture and defining ourselves.

MALVEAUX: Our power and our strength is such an important part of our history, but what about the oppressive myth of the broad-shouldered black women who bear any burden? Where’s the ability to be human–to say, I need somebody to take care of me right now?

ARNWINE: I look at the poems the younger women are writing and some may begin, “I don’t want to be your superwoman.” But then in the same poem they’ll write, “I am the descendant of kings and queens, the founders of civilization.” So you see them struggling with these two currents in their identities. African American women are so driven. But it’s true that the African American woman breaks like any other woman.

MALVEAUX: When 9to5 did a survey on working women, white women talked about stress and being overextended but black women didn’t. If you asked the black woman about what she was doing, she might be a single mom with a job earning $12,000 and going to school, besides, but she would still say, “Naaah, no problems with stress.”

EDELIN: I think white girls in their socialization are given to believe that a certain lifestyle and a certain level of comfort and respect will be theirs. I think that there are very few black girls, even if they are middle-income or upper-middle-income, who ever think they are entitled to that. You have a few Black American Princesses but not many–even today. But we have been endowed with and blessed with this image of strong African women. This notion that we have been able to bear a great deal is centuries old. I don’t know that there’s any comparable phenomenon for white women.

ARNWINE: Historically, African American women have come forth to lead movements when there have been major crises. We have to break down this insanity about our own community’s not wanting women leaders — the feeling that because African American men have been denied a role in the society at large, that they need to be leaders in their own communities and black women should understand and step back. We need to challenge every bit of that.

MALVEAUX: We just went through it with the NAACP.

ARNWINE: We’re still going through it. And until white women feel that overcoming racism and racial stereotypes is an integral part of their own organizing agenda, the women’s movement is not going to make progress. Some are beginning to realize how they are going to have to adjust their strategies moving into this new millennium. NOW’s Ellie Smeal came to me and Elaine Jones, head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and said, “We white women have got to do something about affirmative action, and we want your advice on how to do it.” Now that’s a big change from 1993, when a coalition of white women’s groups who bought into the “two-fer” myth actually met with Clinton’s transition leaders to make sure that they didn’t give all the jobs to black women.

MALVEAUX: We now have five years until the millennium. How will we move the American agenda off this destructive path of uncompassionate capitalism, to something that is more humane?

EDELIN: Let’s remember why the conservative Republicans look like such a well-oiled machine of the best-organized, smartest people on the planet. Because their agenda is simple and single-focused — to gather all of the wealth into the fewest possible hands and remove all of the regulations that prevent them from doing as they like. The Democrats and independents, on the other hand, have a broad agenda of quality-of-life issues. You can easily look confused and disorganized while trying to address hundreds of issues instead of just one.

ARNWINE: Yes. And I think that what we need to do in the future as African American women is to organize to use what power we have more effectively. For example, when NLCCRUL proposed a recent conference on African American Women and the Law, we sought funding from a couple of corporations who said, “Black women, power, law — that’s threatening! We can’t handle this.” I approached one corporation that I knew depended on black women customers and said, “I expect you to support us, since black women are X percent of your consumers.” And they did. But we don’t exert our power enough that way. I’m glad that we’re into our self-esteem, and that we’re discovering ourselves and studying ourselves, but I think we also have to mobilize ourselves. And as long as Newt doesn’t have to worry about our voting, as long as Newt doesn’t have to worry about our ability to boycott these companies that support him and Empowerment TV, as long as society doesn’t have to worry about us putting on TV the equivalent of On The Issues, as long as that’s not feared, then we will not be in anything but a subordinate position in this society. We can’t wait for other people to recognize our leadership. We have to organize now!