Sunday, October 25, 2009

America, Reimagined: Conflict

(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)

Some sessions at America Reimagined, this year's PopTech conference [which ended last night], focused on the themes of racial and class conflict in the United States. Several speakers offered some new thinking about how these tensions are shaping the idea of America at home and abroad—and urged new ways to ease them.

Paul van Zyl, an anti-apartheid organizer in South Africa and Nelson Mandela's executive secretary of the famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, urged conferees to help work for the creation of a similar body in America. "America cannot re-imagine itself unless it undertakes a proper reckoning with this dark chapter in its recent past," van Zyl said, referring to the Bush Administration's use of torture as part of its war on terrorism. "A new America must confront this dark chapter openly and publicly ... and give victims a chance to testify and allow the American people to hear a firsthand, unvarnished account of the crimes committed in their name."

The South African TRC required perpetrators to confess to their crimes in public and take questions from the victims of their aggression. van Zyl said that such a process was critical to the transition to democratic rule in which those in power would be accountable to citizens. Yet many Americans, "fearing the specter of a ticking nuclear bomb in a major U.S. city somewhere," appear to have a kind of "national ambivalence" to holding Americans similarly accountable, he said. "America needs a process of publicly repudiating torture—not just because [torture] is wrong, but because once you've opened the Pandora's box of state-sanctioned brutality, the violence and the degradation that follow are seldom confined to your enemies, alone," he said. van Zyl, who now works as EVP of the International Center for Transitional Justice, said:

"Why stop at torture? What about a person who you suspect has raped and may rape again? Why not murder suspects? Why not suspected pedophiles, or arsonists? Once you start justifying torture either morally or legally, it will start to infect your law enforcement community and your criminal justice system. The number of innocent people who are tortured will skyrocket and the country's legal and moral foundations will crumble."

van Zyl said former Vice President Dick Cheney admitted to authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture—and now justifies it as being both legal and moral. "Dick Cheney has defended torture in ways that would make dictators blush," van Zyl said. Imagine if every country that believes it is facing an existential threat engaged in this behavior? "...All the human rights progress we've made since WWII," he said, "would be erased in the face of the war on terror."

Among other presentations on racial and ethnic conflict:

* Rinku Sen, executive director of the Applied Research Center, an organization that fights for racial justice, said that most people have no idea how racism works structurally, so our notions about a "post-racial America"—one in which race is no longer significant or important— are premature and incomplete. People don't want to be racist, she told conferees, but diversity isn't enough to fell racism. Racial justice, she says, is more than simply getting the right mix of people into the same room. Sen, the author of The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, said racism will ease only if there is also racial equity in the distribution of dollars. "Diversity has not led to to racial equity in the way philanthropic dollars are distributed," she said. "Philanthropy has become more diverse in the past 40 years but only .03 percent of private philanthropic dollars go to black communities." The problem with the concept of a "post-racial America," she said, is that it's based on a very limited definition of racism as being "individual, intentional, and explicit." Racism, Sen says, runs much deeper, and urged conferees to support organizations that promote fair wages and integration in all types of jobs, to break patterns of racial hierarchy that, for example, can lead restaurants to put only white men in the most visible positions "at the front of the house" and immigrants of color into the less visible positions in the back, where they make much less money. "Racial justice is at the core of a compassionate, inclusive and effective society," says Sen, who moved with her family to the States from India when she was five years old. "...We're not there yet."

* Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Schools [called by the The New Yorker last May "the first charter group in the country to seize a high school in a hostile takeover"] has opened 17 charter high schools in the past decade in some of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods of Los Angeles, as well as one school in the Bronx. Green Dot takes kids from what Barr calls the "dropout factories" of public education—those who test far below grade level—and ends up sending nearly 80 percent of them off to college. Barr, who co-founded Rock the Vote and worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, told PopTech conferees [he was only half-joking] that the way to turn around our broken public school system is to outlaw private schools. "What would happen if Bill Gates had to send his kids to public school?" Barr quipped. "He'd go to McKinsey [Consulting] and demand that they turn this stuff around." Barr retold the story about how he and Green Dot took over Locke High School in Watts, the tough neighborhood dominated by the Bloods and Crips gangs: When case-study writers from the Harvard Business School asked Barr to describe the inspiration behind Green Dot's model, he didn't cite other schools; he named the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Every city has a Locke High School, he said. "Until we fix this, there's no widespread American financial recovery," Barr told PopTech attendees, and urged them to support politicians who are able to challenge their own preconceptions about race—politicians "who actually know that black and brown kids can learn." You don't need rich parents to get a good education, he said. You need committed, engaged parents and politicians who accept responsibility for turning the nation's high schools around.

* Ceasefire Chicago was founded by Gary Slutkin [PopTech2008] and trains former gang members, who know Chicago's gang culture inside and out, as "Violence Interrupters"—and then hires them to jump into high-risk conflicts and cool things down to prevent more shootings. Slutkin considers violence much like a disease; he believes epidemiological research can help people understand how it spreads—as well as how it might be treated. Results have been mixed so far: A U.S. Department of Justice survey says that CeaseFire has decreased violence radically in the places it serves; a 2007 story in the
Chicago Sun-Times, meanwhile, quoted independent data compiled by Northeastern Illinois University saying that "in some of CeaseFire's targeted areas, violence has increased." Last spring, CeaseFire spent three months interviewing people in high-crime neighborhoods "and heard over and over again that "there's no good news in our communities," says Amanda Geppert, who works with Slutkin. Gossip and rumors spread through these neighborhoods like wildfire, she said. Residents say they feel isolated in their homes and ignored—and always vulnerable to the crossfire. So video artist and photographer Lincoln Schatz, working in collaboration with Geppert, have created Cure Violence, a multimedia effort launched Friday by CeaseFire at PopTech to recreate a civic space—but online—to help communities reach across the boundaries that divide them to start talking about common problems. "We go out with cameras and ask two questions—what's causing the violence and how do we stop it?" says Schatz. Later this month, Cure Violence will start working with 3,000 kids in the Chicago public school system to reshape the conversation about race and gang violence; students will use simple social media to document their own stories about the violence on the Cure Violence site, which exists in beta here but won't be formally launched for another 6-7 months as the team works with students to build content.

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