On November 19, Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts and African & African American Studies Program in conjunction with The Nation hosted a symposium on Race in the Post-Obama Era.
The first half of the symposium, moderated by H. Samy Alim, featured a conversation about Policing, Mass Incarceration & Racial Justice with Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), Rinku Sen (Colorlines), Isabel Garcia (Derechos Humanos) and Reverend Osagyefo Sekou (Fellowship of Reconciliation & King Research and Education Institute).
The second half of the symposium, moderated by Jeff Chang, featured a conversation about The Arts, Racial Justice & Cultural Equity with Favianna Rodriguez (CultureStr/ke), Jasiri X (1Hood), Jonathan Calm (Stanford Department of Art & Art History), Deborah Cullinan (Yerba Buena Center for The Arts), and Rita Gonzalez (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Read the framing essays for these two conversations, below and watch these two deeply moving and insightful discussions.
Thinking Freedom Now: Policing, Mass Incarceration & Racial Justice
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that the triple scourges of America and the world were racism, militarism, and poverty. What we have seen over the past decade is that police brutality and mass incarceration have brought together these three scourges in new and devastating ways for people of color, particularly for African Americans.
Few observers, at home and abroad, have missed the irony that what Michelle Alexander has called “the New Jim Crow” has vaulted into prominence at the precise moment an African-American family occupies the White House. At the start of President Obama’s term in office, polls showed a high level of optimism about race relations. Now four in ten Americans believe that race relations have become worse during Obama’s presidency.
The culture wars have returned, and these culture wars are about race. We have seen the cultural attacks of the birthers, and extremist hijacking of the debate over immigration. These wars mobilize support for racialized domestic policies towards people of color inside the United States, and also shape US immigration and foreign policies that impact people of color around the globe.
We have seen the number of deportations that destroy families and leave children to the violence of the streets reaching a record level—more than 2 million under Obama. Immigrant detention centers are now the fastest growing sector of the for-profit prison industry.
We have seen continued school closings in black and Latino neighborhoods and continued criminalization of youth and children of color and migrants. The school-to-prison pipeline only seems to have strengthened. Racial profiling like New York’s stop-and-frisk program and the intensified surveillance of Muslim houses of worship has intensified. And social media has now given us video after video of police officers—representatives of the racial state—brutalizing, shooting, and killing unarmed black, Latino, and Native American men, women, and children.
And yet, amid all of this, we have also witnessed the rise of powerful local and national social movements to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
Over the past year, we have heard the voices of the #BlackLivesMatter movement raised against state oppression and brutality—mostly young voices on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland, on campuses like the University of Missouri, Claremont McKenna College, Smith College, and Yale University, and right here with the #Stanford68. Throughout the nation, at all levels, we have seen an overwhelming return to the politics of disruption. The words of Assata Shakur have galvanized an entire generation: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Before that, there were movements such as Occupy calling out the economic violence of the 1 percent, and the Dreamers movement challenging our very notions of citizenship and pressing us to see the violence perpetrated against migrant bodies—brown, yellow, black, and red—in detention, deportation, and Border Patrol killings.
These powerful justice movements remind us that while Barack Obama’s electoral victory was indeed a major one, that electoral politics—at least at this reactionary moment in history—is still limited in its effectiveness at bringing the kinds of changes that our communities are demanding. Hope comes not from the steps of the Capitol but from the streets, the communities, the voiceless and invisible who have found their voices and taken the spotlight.
Over the past five years, justice movements have exposed the violence done by the state, and given us the ability to see what was previously hidden from us.
As we move headlong into the post-Obama era, how will we see and think and organize for freedom? What are the politics and aesthetics of disruption and change? Where can it take us all in our colorized futures?
Seeing Race Now: The Arts, Racial Justice & Cultural Equity
In 1975, the Bay Area transplant and author Ishmael Reed announced the arrival of the multiculturalism movement. He and others argued that the world of American arts and culture would need to change to reflect the diverse ways of becoming American and the culture exchange that is “a fact of everyday ordinary existence in the complex civilization in which we live.”
As each new American generation has asserted its desire for more equality and equity, a backlash has flared. On Twitter, those upset with justice movements have pitted #BlackLivesMatter against #AllLivesMatter. Donald Trump and Ben Carson have risen in the polls on waves of xenophobia.
Contrast the terror and division of the moment with another vision of society. Many years ago, the musiciologist and folklorist Alan Lomax coined the term “cultural equity” to describe the kind of vibrant multiculturalism that societies need to maintain their vitality, progress and sustainability.
At this moment, questions of cultural equity—of representation, access, and power—have come back to center stage. Ava Duvernay’s Selma was snubbed for “Best Picture” Oscar. The Brooklyn-based collective that calls itself “How Do You Say Yam In African?” withdrew from the 2014 Whitney Biennial to protest the inclusion of a piece by Joe Scanlan in which he, a white male professor, hired black female actors to play the part of an artist named Donelle Woolford. The white male poet Michael Derrick Hudson was caught submitting poems under the name Yi-Fen Chou. Representation seems to have been eclipsed by appropriation, equity by absurdity.
In the arts, we have enjoyed thinking of ourselves as above all of that. We deal with the transcendent stuff of human greatness, not petty little identity aesthetics/identity politics.
And yet much of the most galvanizing recent art has been closely related to movements for justice. We might point to Damon Davis’s street art intervention “All Hands On Deck” or Emma Sulkowicz’s performance protest “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” or Kamasi Washington’s album The Epic.
All of this is happening even as many arts leaders describe a crisis. From the campuses to the concert halls, we are living in a time in which the arts and humanities have literally been devalued. The NEA tells us that only one in three Americans have attended an arts performance or visited an art museum or gallery in the past year, a 40-year low.
Yet we also know that the lion’s share of the $2.3 billion in foundation arts funding goes to arts organizations with budgets of more than $5 million—the richest 2 percent of all arts organizations. And most major arts institutions have done a poor job of meeting the colorized American present and future. Nationally, whites still constitute 75 percent of attendees for the performing arts.
Of every dollar in arts funding, only a dime goes toward arts organizations that support “underserved communities”—that is to say, low-income populations, communities of color, and other disadvantaged groups. And a recent survey found that, in the LA Unified School District, eight in ten elementary schools did not meet minimum state requirements for providing arts education—this at a time when the notion of creativity has never been more celebrated by the titans of industry.
At Tom Finkelpearl’s direction, the New York City Cultural Affairs Commission is undertaking a vast accounting of the city’s arts institutions, asking them to report on the diversity of their audiences they serve on up to the boards that run them. Spike Lee reminded us this past weekend that the culture industry has no one of color to green-light projects like Selma. It is still unprepared to deal with a society that has changed demographically and culturally.
What kinds of visions of freedom and justice can move us toward the end the culture wars and a fairer and more vitalized democracy? What would equitable arts and culture in the United States look like?