Rutgers University Annual Women's Month Symposium
"Is Power Redefining the Politics of Women?"
March 28, 2008
I would like to thank the Students Association, the faculty, and the Administration for thinking about me and inviting me to be here this afternoon with you as we celebrate Women's History Month.
It is appropriate to think about the status of women here at home and around the world because we also just celebrated International Women's Day. Of course, as a Black woman, I'm committed to improving the status of both women and Blacks.
The theme of this year's Women's History Month Symposium is "Women Redefining the Politics of Power." I believe that we should also investigate the extent to which "The Powers That Be," that is, "Power" with a capital "P" has redefined women's politics—to the detriment of women. So I have entitled my speech, "Is Power Redefining the Politics of Women?" I believe we should also ask the same question with respect to African-Americans.
It was my father who literally pulled me into the political arena and taught me its power.
You see, I saw, in my life, a direct benefit from the kind of political action that presses a specific demand. We were not involved just to be active—we were involved with a purpose, to make a difference. Of course there were men and women who were involved because they sought adulation from others and politics was a way to get that, but it was important for me, and those around me, to be able to distinguish the sincere candidates of change from the sycophants. It was important that candidates and incumbents alike, voters and constituents, be the ones pressing the system at all times, with nothing in mind but our interests, therefore making a difference for all of us. We felt that anyone holding an official position, not pressing for our interests, was not working on behalf of the community. We were trying to redefine the politics of power.
My story starts with my father who was arrested in his Army uniform, still on the train coming home from Europe, and when that train stopped, he went into the station to taste that white water. He drank from the white water fountain, still in his U.S. Army uniform, and promptly got arrested.
That was my father's welcome back to the United States after serving his country to make the world safe for democracy.
Shortly after that, my father became one of Atlanta's first Black police officers. He couldn't arrest Whites even when they were in the midst of committing a crime; the Black officers would have to call a White officer to make the arrest; there were certain parts of town the Black officers couldn't venture into; and they couldn't even change into and out of their uniforms inside the Atlanta Police headquarters. They would have to trek down the street and around the corner to the Black YMCA. So my father would protest all of this, in his uniform, most times alone, because the other Blacks were too afraid to join him. For 20 years, while he was a policeman, my father watched as others received promotions based on whatever the indignity was that he protested. From my father's experience, I learned service without expectation of reward.
And then one day, my father decided that it was insufficient to protest public policy, one ought to make public policy. So, he ran for office: two times he ran, and two times he lost. Because both times he ran were before the Voting Rights Act was law.
But then in August of 1965, after Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, things changed for Black people across the South—things changed for our country.
From the film American Blackout, you get a bit of this history and the story of what happened to me—twice—and how the Black vote was systematically disfranchised, not only in my elections by the use of crossover voting, but also in our last two Presidential elections by various Republican schemes uncontested by the Democrats.
The Voting Rights Act mandated that election laws and certain practices prevalent in the South change or be discontinued. With the elimination of those practices, backed by the strong arm of the federal government and the Courts, the landscape changed in Georgia and my father ran for office and won.
That was an interest, in this case, Black people, redefining the politics of Power (with a capital P).
With his position in the Legislature, my father could use the power of his position to inject his values into the system and make the system respond. He immediately, then, filed a lawsuit against the State of Georgia for its discriminatory hiring practices, won that lawsuit, and the State of Georgia was under a court decree on hiring until my father's ouster from the Georgia Legislature by the same forces and methods that targeted and ousted me in 2002.
I wanted you to have this background so you can understand why I believe that the political process, even as imperfect as it is today, can do powerful things to help people and change circumstances. Why I believe that we can use the tool of our vote to obtain from the political system what we need to be free, to be treated equally, to find justice, and to live in peace. Frederick Douglass told us that power concedes nothing without a demand. It is clear that the political system can deliver, but we need to be clear on what is the demand.
According to United for a Fair Economy, racial disparities in 2004 were in some cases worse then than at the time of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—that on homeownership, without public policy intervention, it would take 1,664 years to close the racial gap in home ownership in our country.
In 2005, United for a Fair Economy explored the disparate impact of Bush's "Ownership Society" economic program that saw Black and Latino lives shattered as unemployment, income, home ownership, business ownership, and stock ownership plummeted.
In 2006, United for a Fair Economy focused on the devastating and embarrassing effect of government inaction before, during, and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They focused on car ownership and the relationship between vehicle ownership and race. In the case of New Orleans, car ownership literally meant the difference between losing or saving one's life.
In 2007, United for a Fair Economy explored Black voters' attachment to the Democratic Party, and in a piece entitled, "Voting Blue, but Staying in the Red," they explored goals that the Democratic Party should have put at the top of its agenda for its first 100 hours in the majority. While noting that the Democrats didn't even mention Katrina in their agenda, United for a Fair Economy concluded that Blacks and Latinos voted in the November 2006 elections in the blue, but due to a failure of public policy to pay attention to their needs, they continue to live in the red.
In United for a Fair Economy's 2008 report, they explore the sub-prime mortgage crisis and note that the largest loss of wealth in U.S. history is being experienced by the Black and Latino communities with an estimated $92 billion being lost by Blacks and an estimated $98 billion being lost by Latinos. And while families who are losing their life savings and their only major investment, policy makers are asking them to tighten their belts. But the banks' CEOs are walking away with record remuneration.
Sadly, United for a Fair Economy isn't the only research organization
to find glaring and intolerable disparities by race in our society with
no appropriate public policies enacted to address them. Hull House
did a study that found that it would take 200 years to close the gap
in the quality of life experienced by Black Chicagoans and white
Chicagoans. There has been no public policy initiative taken up by
the mayor or the governor of Illinois to begin closing that gap.
Several years ago, the New York Times published a finding that nearly half the men between the ages of 16 and 64 in New York City were unemployed. There was no initiative by the mayor or the governor of New York to begin addressing such pain.
Every year, the National Urban League publishes a study, "The State of Black America," in which the ills and disparities that persist in this country are catalogued. Every year, the story is basically the same. Only public policy can address these glaring disparities.
Pressing the system with a public policy demand constitutes an interest redefining the politics of Power. That's power with a capital P. Now, that same Power likes to use politics to advance its own, not others' interests.
Now, what I've learned is that the rich folks of this country (Power with a capital P) know what government can do and they know how to press a demand in their interest. That's why they've got lobbyists pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the political system so the corporations and individuals they represent can get what they want.
That's what the Jena 6 District Attorney meant when he went to the high school and announced to the students that with the stroke of a pen he could ruin their lives. He could use the power of his position, the power of politics, to impose his values on the community at large.
It is to wield and influence the power of position and the power over the public purse, the power over public policy, that we engage the political system. Not merely to hold positions. Dr. King said that the Negro in Mississippi must be able to vote, but the Negro in New York had to have something for which to vote. The power to make public policy in our interest is that "something for which" we vote.
The statistics reflecting life for Blacks in the United States cited in repeated studies reflect, in my opinion, a dismal failure to translate our votes into an agenda that eliminates disparities and presses our interests. As United for a Fair Economy concluded, Blacks vote in the blue, but stay in the red. That I maintain, is politically dysfunctional.
Please understand that a three trillion dollar federal budget and 51, including the District of Columbia, multi-billion dollar state budgets, and thousands of multi-million dollar county, school board, and city budgets hold the possibility of doing a tremendous amount of good; however we are now seeing that a lot of bad can be done when that kind of money and power are put in the hands of those who are not well intentioned, or to those who are easily swayed off course by proximity to power and wealth.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. I was not raised in a family where doing nothing was an option.
So, I participated in protests with my father, to get the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts passed; I faced an armed Alabama Klan with my father; and I eventually ran for office as a part of my father's vision—it surely was nothing I was too much interested in doing. I was content to support good candidates.
But, the '60s and '70s, despite the challenges, were heady times for the movement because my father's generation identified a problem, fashioned a solution, implemented that solution, benefited from their sacrifices, and then relied on succeeding generations to continue pushing the Movement forward.
And move forward our country did.
The women's movement, the gay liberation movement, the American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican independence, Chicano pride, and a powerful antiwar movement formed a synergism that propelled success on many different fronts—but also set the stage for the setbacks that were to come from Power's reaction. And that is Power with a capital P.
While the American patchwork of humanity was being stitched together for real change in our country, the government didn't sit still. Its response was COINTELPRO, the Counter-Intelligence Program, a program whose mission it was, in the words of the FBI, "to misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" Black leadership in this country. I would posit to you that we, the keepers of the flame in my generation, failed to fashion a response to the concerted and largely successful COINTELPRO attacks on authentic leadership that surfaced as a result of our struggles.
This official, government-led attack on communities' authentic leadership is chronicled in Ward Churchill's book, the COINTELPRO Papers. There, we see that in 1918, J. Edgar Hoover was concerned that Marcus Garvey, "excites the Negroes." The story of the government's interest in this authentic community leadership is available on the internet and should be understood to extend to today's cultural icons, hip hop artists, community activists, and even pro-peace and environmental leaders.
But, in 1965, a document stamped by the CIA, described what I call regime change on Black America. It said somewhere at the top there must be a Negro who is clean who can step into the vacuum and chaos once Dr. King is either exposed or assassinated.
This memo described exactly what I saw taking place in Georgia while I was in the Legislature and the issue was who was going to go to Congress from Georgia's new Black-opportunity district. The Speaker of Georgia's House and the Governor of my state got together and decided who the next Black Congressperson was going to be before the people in the new district even had had the chance cast one vote.
That's when I decided to run--because I saw how the Democratic leadership of my state intended to trick Black people in Georgia's new, but poor and rural Black belt Congressional district. Voters would invest their dreams and precious votes, in a candidate who, unbeknownst to them, had already been pre-selected to protect the status quo and not them—the voters. This was Power's response to my agitation from the Legislature to get more Blacks from Georgia into the U.S. Congress.
I witnessed this and pulled the plug on it. That's how I became a Member of Congress from Georgia. I had the temerity to think the people should have a representative, too, and the people agreed.
(Parenthetically, I agitated with other civil rights leaders in the state for more Black judges, too. And the beneficiary of that agitation then turned around and ran against me in the 2002 election, going to Congress, voted into office by Black voters, but only after having been pre-selected by the White Power structure in my state.)
So, an immediate challenge was to understand the scope of the problem associated with true representation. I had to learn the truth before I could fashion a public policy intervention that the numbers cry out for. And that's what I've done throughout my political career—focus on the issues and the appropriate public policy intervention necessary to make ours a more just and peaceful country.
That meant, at times, also telling some inconvenient truths. However, telling those truths comes from my observations and experiences inside the world of politics.
Now, would my experiences lead me to believe that the need for civil rights is over?
The answer is an emphatic no.
But I would quickly posit that Power wants you to believe that the need for civil rights is over. Power doesn't want you to think about pressing a demand for a group of people, Power only wants you to press a demand for your single Black self. Power wants the freedom to go about satisfying its interests and wants you to redefine what your interests are.
I would suggest that statistics like those in the reports of United for a Fair Economy are a reflection of what happens when civil rights are no longer vigorously pursued. Statistics like those can only occur when everybody in charge of the shop goes home and leaves the shop untended. Or rather, when public policy interventions are not sought to resolve communities' problems.
So now, let me turn to women.
The United Nations informs us that women have not achieved equality with men in any country; that most of the world's poor are women; roughly 50% of women experience some form of domestic violence; and the use of rape as a weapon of war is becoming more evident.
It is the struggle of women for equal treatment in the political life of our country that has motivated women to become candidates for office. Did you know that even before women had the right to vote, women ran for President of this country? Between 1964 and 2004 there have been 50 women on at least one state ballot in November for President of the United States. But not until 1972 and the run of the unbought and unbossed Shirley Chisholm did women candidates do well. Chisholm got over 400,000 votes—at that time a record--and sent 151 delegates to the Democratic Convention.
The only woman to ever appear on the ballot in all 50 states plus D.C. was Dr. Lenora Fulani in 1988. In 1987, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder formed an exploratory committee, but declined to run after not being able to raise enough money. It was at this press conference that she cried and the media derision of women candidates truly began. However, by 2006, in an LA Times/Bloomberg poll, only 4% of registered voters said that they would not vote for a woman presidential candidate.
While this is certainly progress, it is public policy progress that ought to motivate our political activism and provide a measure of our effectiveness.
So for example, women are present and achieving influence in politics and in the labor force; but even today, with a woman Speaker of the House and a woman running for President, women still earn less for the same work than men.
Even worse, when a woman runs for office, I've noticed something terrible about the reportage.
At first, the press pays real close attention to the clothes—even the choice of colors is newsworthy. Then there is the issue of wearing a dress or pants. Then there is the cleavage issue—how much is too much.
I went to Catholic schools and so I cover up. But even that's not acceptable: I receive messages that I wear too many clothes!
What kind of accessories adorn the outfit is even worthy of a mention. And don't wear the wrong shoes! Remember the recent photo with the question, "Is America ready to watch a woman age?"
I remember having a conversation with a former Black woman U.S. Senator who lamented that the situation was even worse for Black women because we're either the "mammy," or "Sapphire," or the jezebel. And that because of pre-conceived ideas held largely by White men about Black women, and those images are played out on television every day, you'll almost never read adjectives like "bold," "sassy," "intelligent," used to describe Black political women because those aren't the characterizations of Black women in popular and historical culture.
Keeping women inside the confines of a pre-determined box could become a politically useful tool.
The authors of "Rebuilding America's Defenses", the Project for a New American Century, wrote that genotypically specific bioweapons could become a politically useful tool. And given the facts of MK-Ultra, the Tuskegee Experiment, and COINTELPRO, I have my senses finely honed to detect politically useful tools in use by people who don't want freedom, peace, equality, and justice for the rest of us.
Professor June Scorza Terpstra wrote an article entitled, "Hollow Women of the Hegemon," found at http://carolynbaker.net. Professor Terpstra's theme is that more and more of what we are seeing in politics today are women who represent the Hegemon, rather than women who follow the traditional role of political women which used to be to challenge the Hegemon, or as I've used it earlier, Power with a capital P. According to Terpstra, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice represent examples of this. And, remember, it is far easier to get positive press when you are or can be of service to the Hegemon than when you're challenging it.
Dr. Terpstra reaches back to the writings of Franz Fanon to remind us that the real tragedy is the extent to which powerful women now do the bidding of the global masters. It is this distinction that we must remember and constantly ask ourselves when we see candidates. The Hegemon, has responded to our successes, and as Terpstra informs us, is now about the business of using women to carry out tasks that serve its interests. Terpstra forces us to recognize that it's no longer the way it used to be: that voters could have confidence that women were in politics not to advance their own oppression. You could somewhat be sure that a woman elected to office was there to advance the collective interests of women.
Terpstra concludes that we, who are standing with the oppressed and for liberation, need new rules, strategies and tactics to deal with the dangerous realities of a new gender and color-blind imperialism.
So, now we know: clean Negroes as described in that CIA document, and "Hollow Women" are politically useful tools of the Hegemon. They are the example, not of women and Blacks defining power, but of Power (capital P) redefining the politics of Blacks and women. Hence, the name of my remarks to you this afternoon.
Now, if Terpstra is correct and we are entering a new gender and color-blind imperialism, what are we to do about it?
I think the solution lies in us never veering from our goals—to keep our eyes on the prize. And the prize is a public policy result.
We vote to have power over public policy, power over the use of the public purse. We vote for the agenda and platform that will move our interests forward. Politics is the authoritative allocation of values in a society and we want public resources directed to our values.
I want to subsidize education so you're not a hundred thousand dollars in debt just because you want to get an education!
I want a single payer health care system so Americans can stop spending so much and getting so little!
Don't show me wrinkles on a woman's face, tell me what you're going to do to protect Social Security so our parents and so we can age with dignity!
I do believe it is possible to have this discussion if we demand it. And we can have authentic representation, too, if we demand it.
Therefore, I'm working with a nation-wide group of displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors and their supporters from the Black-nationalist, labor, and environmental communities who are prepared to wage a different kind of action in what is now a different kind of struggle.
While the nature of the struggle has definitely changed, our objectives have not. We must never forget that Dr. King was murdered just as he was about to launch the Poor People's Campaign, to demand economic justice as well as peace and political justice. The notion being put forward by some in the corporate press that today somehow marks the end of the need for civil rights is, as George Carlin said, the part of the American dream you believe only when you're asleep.
The Hegemon is counting on you to fall asleep. And my mother tells me often that this world isn't going to change unless women change it. But the change agents will not be the women of the hegemon. So, stay alert. The people of our country need you.