Monday, August 18, 2003

Is MEChA racist?

Tacitus has a long post up questioning Cruz Bustamante's associations with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, a Latino-rights organization that Tacitus contends is racist.

But the evidence that MEChA is racist, including that presented by Tacitus, is rather thin and problematic at best. In reality, it most resembles a typical college-campus ethnic-pride organization, with all the accompanying baggage of fiery rhetoric from its more radical contingents but largely a record of advocating for its rights entirely within the system and with an emphasis on multiculturalism, which is the antithesis of the racism practiced by most so-called "hate" groups.

First, let's try to make our terms clear: What, exactly, makes an organization racist? The Southern Poverty Law Center's definition of a "hate" group is probably the most clear and useful:
All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

It goes without saying, of course, that there are many, many racial/ethnic/identity-pride organizations, ranging from the Irish-American Cultural Institute to the Japanese American Citizens League, none of which are racist in any shape.

Many of these are devoted to not merely advocating for equal rights for their constituencies but (particularly with certain black-pride and gay-pride organizations) with arguing for a kind of nationalism, promoting the greater virtues of their particular identities and often fiercely denouncing the oppression they believe they continue to suffer. Again, there is nothing inherently racist in this.

These groups definitively become racist, however, when they tread over that line and begin attacking other ethnicities or identity groups. In the case of groups like neo-Nazis and the Klan, of course, this means serially denigrating non-whites and Jews in the lowest terms; it can also take such purportedly high-minded forms as the white-nationalist American Renaissance organization or the nakedly anti-Semitic and racist Nation of Islam. As mentioned previously, La Voz de Aztlan is clearly a racist hate group as well, and the SPLC identifies them as such.

But the connections between La Voz and MEChA, however, are tenuous at best. There are no MEChA links on the La Voz Web site, and the latter's use of the "Aztlan" concept is the same kind of cultural hijacking of legitimate ethnic-heritage symbolism that is common among white supremacists. It no more colors MEChA than does the neo-Nazi Stormfront's adoption of the Celtic Cross as a symbol impugn Celtic organizations (which is to say, not at all). The publishers of La Voz are ex-Mechistas, but again, that kind of "connection" is actually a very thin thread, particularly if they have no current associations with either national MEChA or any of its chapters.

Now let's look at the evidence Tacitus presents that MEChA is racist. Most of this is in the form of text he extracts from various Mechista writings, including the group's founding documents. Chief among the latter of these is El Plan de Santa Barbara:
The widespread use of the term Chicano today signals a rebirth of pride and confidence. Chicanismo simply embodies and ancient truth: that a person is never closer to his/her true self as when he/she is close to his/her community. Chicanismo draws its faith and strength from two main sources: from the just struggle of our people and from an objective analysis of our community's strategic needs....

Commitment to the struggle for Chicano liberation is the operative definition of the ideology used here. Chicanismo involves a crucial distinction in political consciousness between a Mexican American (or Hispanic) and a Chicano mentality. The Mexican American or Hispanic is a person who lacks self-respect and pride in one's ethnic and cultural background. Thus, the Chicano acts with confidence and with a range of alternatives in the political world. He is capable of developing and effective ideology through action.

Mexican Americans (or Hispanics) must be viewed as potential Chicanos. Chicanismo is flexible enough to relate to the varying levels of consciousness within La Raza. Regional variations must always be kept in mind as well as the different levels of development, composition, maturity, achievement, and experience in political action. Cultural nationalism is a means of total Chicano liberation.

There are definite advantages to cultural nationalism, but no inherent limitations. A Chicano ideology, especially as it involves cultural nationalism, should be positively phrased in the form of propositions to the Movement. Chicanismo is a concept that integrates self-awareness with cultural identity, a necessary step in developing political consciousness. As such, it serves as a basis for political action, flexible enough to include the possibility of coalitions. The related concept of La Raza provides an internationalist scope of Chicanismo, and La Raza Cosmica furnishes a philosophical precedent.

Discomfiting and short-sighted as this may seem, there is in fact nothing inherently racist in this -- ethnic nationalism is not racism. It only becomes so when it attacks or maligns other races, and there is nothing in this text (or anywhere else in El Plan) that does so. Tacitus goes on to cite text from El Plan Spiritual de Aztlan that continues largely in this vein, though with more strident language decrying their "oppressors." There is, however, one disturbing sentence:
Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggles against the foreigner "gabacho" who exploits our riches and destroys our culture.

This is borderline racist, since "gabacho" has a clearly derogatory meaning, and it paints a picture of all white people as intending the destruction of Latino culture.

However, the bulk of these screeds are simply demanding a place at the table for Chicanos, albeit a powerful one -- like most such ethnic-nationalist worldviews, it sees itself in the leading role. Indeed, a careful reading of the rest of El Plan Spiritual reveals that it goes on to discuss its political role both as a majority and a minority, which indicates it sees itself working in a context of others, with no hint of eliminationism.

Tacitus' next excerpt is far more damning in that it is unequivocally racist:
According to Miguel Perez, mechista of Cal State Northridge, "The ultimate ideology is the liberation of Aztlan. [Communism would be closest]....Non-Chicanos would have to be expelled....opposition groups would have to be quashed because you have to keep the power."

It is one thing to advocate ethnic nationalism, even in strident terms; it is another thing altogether to advocate the removal of differing ethnicities and their political oppression. This is only a step removed from the viciousness of La Voz de Aztlan, frankly. Eliminationist rhetoric should be condemned in whatever form it appears.

However, the rantings of one person from a single chapter does not make an entire organization racist. The question is whether MEChA as a whole reflects these kinds of eliminationist views, or whether they are common among the ranks of Mechistas. And so far, I have uncovered no evidence that this is the case.

It is clear, in fact, that MEChA in fact is mostly a decentralized organization that encompasses fairly diverse worldviews and politics -- and moreover, the vast bulk of its activism stresses Chicano rights, but advocates them through cooperative action and working within the system (though obviously much of this is tinged with 1960s-style "revolutionary" fervor). It manifests itself mostly on college campuses, where chapters largely reflect the politics of the constituent students, and these range from the relatively moderate to the relatively radical. You can find MEChA chapters everywhere from Oregon to Yale, and a quick perusal of their Web sites reveals that these are largely benign groups that stress multiculturalism, not racism.

So far, it appears there is scant evidence throughout the rest of MEChA (including National MEChA) of much of Miguel Perez's racism, and it requires mostly a tendentious reading of the founding documents to find traces of racism there. It is important to remember that most true "hate" groups are positively obsessed not merely with the superiority of their identity but with attacking and maligning the Others.

Consider, for instance, the example of David Duke's National Organization for the Advancement of White People. As suggested by its name, its chief pose was not as a "hate" group but simply as an organization devoted to defending the rights of white people. But the NAAWP was unmistakably racist because it in fact devoted large portions, if not nearly the entirety, of its advocacy to attacking maligning blacks, Jews, homosexuals, "foreigners" and anyone else who was not white.

MEChA does not fit this kind of profile, even remotely. The tinges of racism it has acquired are not central to its philosophy, but are more a product of its ethnic nationalism, which by its nature can be problematic (just because it can be a breeding ground for racism) but is not in itself racist.

It is important to stress, however, that all of us are working from a limited set of data. I myself have only a handful of Mechista writings and position papers to work from, as does, I suspect, Tacitus. It may well be that a more thorough examination of Mechista writings and positions reveals widespread racism and eliminationism.

I contacted Mark Potok at the SPLC's Intelligence Report to inquire about their assessment of MEChA yesterday, and he replied that for the most part, MEChA has been viewed as a typical progressive multiculturalist campus organization. He indicates, however, that the recent concerns that have been raised about MEChA have sparked their interest, and that the SPLC is now in the process of doing a serious assessment of the matter. If they do so, it is probable that SPLC researchers will be working from a much broader database, which will likely include queries for clarification from national MEChA leadership.

Until we get a more thorough assessment, it is clear that it is best to reserve judgment about MEChA's racism, since the evidence for the charge is very thin and relies largely on "associations" that, so far at least, are tenuous at best and interpretations of rhetoric that lean tendentious.

Of course, one of the charges regularly leveled at "the left" generally (and the SPLC particularly) is that it applies the "racist" label too easily and readily -- after all, such charges can be personally and professionally damaging, and ultimately constitute a smear when they are not well-grounded. While I agree that this occurs with ridiculous regularity among the less thoughtful partisans of the left, particularly among various ethnic advocates, in reality such groups as the SPLC, like most mainstream liberals, are very circumspect and rely upon the weight of substantial evidence before naming an organization racist.

Such judiciousness would be fitting from the left's accusers as well.

[A note: It appears that the FrontPage Magazine article I cited in the previous post on Bustamante has now been edited to remove the reference to La Voz de Aztlan. In the original version, one of the paragraphs described La Voz's wretched anti-Semitism and concluded by asking why Bustamante did not denounce them. You can still find references to this at Alan Henderson's blog (which clearly connects Bustamante to La Voz) as well.]

No comments: