Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ban the N-Impact

The Pan-African Perspective: Ban the N-Impact

In a move designed to garner headlines instead of results, Miami-Dade County District 1 Commissioner Barbara Jordan has proposed criminalizing, albeit without penalties, the use of the n-word. Like so many other acts debated and passed by government bodies, this one will take up time, space and public interest, but will have no beneficial impact whatsoever on the lives of poor, black people.

Like every other word in any other language, the n-word is a string of letters combined to make a particular sound, which is associated with a specific meaning. This is not an attempt to minimize the importance, value and impact of words or language, and that goes double for this word. However, what makes this word so ugly and harmful is not the combination of letters or even the enunciation (either ending with "a" or "er"), it is the devastating history of actions and impacts associated with the word.

Let's be blunt. Nigger means lynching. It means hundreds of white people, including children, gathered to watch a black man, a human being, dragged, beaten, hung from a tree and cooked alive.  It means grinding poverty. Today- not 30 years ago, but today- blacks are disproportionately poor, hungry and die of illnesses which do not kill whites. This is true on planet earth, the United States and right here in Miami-Dade County. It means police harassment and brutality. Being pulled over by the police for lesser, or no transgressions; being shot 41 times after going for your wallet; it means a toilet plunger; it means a disproportionate number of black people arrested, convicted and imprisoned.

Why do other ethnic slurs, such as 'cracker,' fail to engender the same passion as the n-word? That's easy: there is no widespread association between those words and murder, torture, abject poverty, discrimination and other inhumane impacts. The word is highly problematic, to be sure, but the word is not the problem.

If all we had to do to end racism, sexism, poverty and oppression was to ban a few words, this would be a wonderful planet, full of happy people with a delightfully limited vocabulary. However, banning the n-bomb does not ban the racist collateral damage which that word has come to represent. And, in the final analysis, what is so harmful and degrading to the black community are the racist sentiments, actions and impacts, not the individual words which brutally encapsulate those sentiments, represent those actions and foreshadow those impacts.

This is not a defense of the use of the n-word, but it is a call to stop fighting for symbols as a means of drawing attention away from the fact that you are not fighting for anything of substance. If forced to choose between getting rid of the word and getting rid of the very real impacts and conditions the word represents, most sane and rational beings, of any race, would vote to keep the word. The truth is that if everyone stopped using the word tomorrow, we would still have poor, hungry, undereducated and unemployed black people living in squalid slums.

Society as a whole, and the black community in particular, must condemn and sanction people who use racial, sexists, homophobic and classist epitaphs. However, as it relates to racism, it is not the government's job to control what people say, it is their job to stop racist actions and correct or change the impacts of those actions.

Jordan and the BCC have no power at all over the use of this, or most other, words, but are spending valuable time, money and brain power on a fight which, at the end of the day, is symbolic at best and irrelevant at worse. What is so infuriating is that Jordan and the BCC do have the power to change the conditions which give the n-word such horrific value to this day, but are not trying to change the conditions over which they have power, only the symbols over which they have none. It is insulting to think that the BCC contemplating a symbolic ban on this word, is the same one which has consistently diverted tax dollars earmarked for the black community over to wealthy white business interests. I submit that banning the latter activity will do more to defend the integrity of the black community than banning the former.

If the Commission really wants to defend the black community, they should:

  • Ban Poverty. Instead of banning a word, the county can end the degradation of the black community by banning poverty. Instead of stealing public money, feed and provide housing for the poor black people who should not be called by the n-word.
  • Provide jobs. Those who used the word in the past did not want to hire black people. Show your opposition to the word by providing jobs for those same black people.
  • Stop police brutality and the criminalization of the black community. Racists used the police to intimidate and attack the n-people, a practice which has not significantly abated.
  • End racist government policies. The only thing worse than being robbed by someone who calls you the n-word is being robbed by someone who calls you buddy. Don't just stop use of the word, stop the exploitation and oppression.

Max Rameau
The Center for Pan-African Development

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Real MDHA Takeover

Pan-African Perspective: The Real MDHA Takeover

The recent talk regarding the proposed takeover of Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) is framed around offering residents of Miami-Dade County, including victims of the crisis of gentrification and low-income housing, a false choice: choose between the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners (BCC) or the federal government in their big money power play over control of MDHA. Neither choice is good. The only viable solution is community control over MDHA.

Determined to takeover, the feds forwarded three demands: first, strip the BCC of power over MDHA; Second, give MDHA independent legal representation instead of the county attorneys, who represent and can be fired by the BCC; And third, give HUD the power to appoint the MDHA administrator, thereby taking power from the Mayor.

The first two demands are not only reasonable, given the dire situation, but have already been proposed by community organizations fighting for low-income housing. To be plain, the BCC is responsible for this housing mess. The only issue left to debate is whether Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, and the economic development committee he chaired, simply failed to exercise proper oversight or actually encouraged the corruption and abuses at the agency.

Equally significant, the BCC approved public policy disasters, including HOPE VI, which destroyed a net of over 750 units of public housing during a housing crisis. It should be no surprise that Rolle gets most of his campaign contributions from wealthy developers who do not live in his district, but financially benefit from their, um, I mean his, initiatives.

And, while Mayor Alvarez has promised the county will refrain from stealing more money from housing- which, in this town, counts as a major moral stand- he has failed to provide any leadership or vision in determining what MDHA would actually do, once they are no longer busy stealing and covering up. He has not proposed public policy initiatives resulting in more low-income housing for those in need. While refraining from public corruption is a step up from the status quo, it simply does not address the current housing crisis.

On the other side, federal takeovers of housing in New Orleans and elsewhere are disasters. Little consideration for local voices; powerful national corporations monopolizing contracts; and disconnected and unclear housing policies have frustrated residents and failed to serve the needy. Equally as important, the feds appear on a mission to privatize public housing and vouchers, handing over the reigns of power to greedy business interests, a move which would all but pull the plug on a already critical patient.

Consequently, while most endorse the idea of stripping the County of its power over the housing agency, just as many have serious reservations about handing that power over to the feds. And just because the County is removed from power, does not necessarily mean the feds should inherit it.

So, the BCC is out, the feds are not much better and the Mayor has done nothing to earn it. The third, and only viable, option is that the community must control the housing agency.

A number of community organizations wage the fight for the housing rights of low-income people. Those organizations have earned the trust of this community and should be given an opportunity to put some action behind their intentions. In addition, room must be explicitly created for the housing agency 'clients' to play a significant role in determining housing agency polcies.

A community housing trust will serve as the board governing the housing agency, with power to set policy and hire and fire key staff, including the director or administrator. The trust is advised by their independent attorney and consultants and compels MDHA to work for the benefit of families in need of housing rather than developers in need of extra profit.

Such a trust will provide immediate relief from the corruption, address local concerns and empower people to make decisions about their community. More than that, the trust will change public policy so that the housing agency responds positively to the housing crisis and to the families in need of relief. The feds say they want to protect local families and the County government and others pleads for local control. Both objectives are met.

While there is a clear need for intervention to stave off further disaster, the feds never bothered to query the stakeholders of this process. We ask HUD: are you doing this with us, for us or to us? If HUD truly "intends to take any and all necessary steps to protect the interests of Miami's most vulnerable families" then take this step: join us in demanding community, not federal, control over the housing agency. Do not make decisions about us without consulting with the community you claim to be representing.

Community control over housing. An idea whose time has come.

Max Rameau
The Center for Pan-African Development