Tuesday, September 02, 2003

The MEChA meme

The claim that the Chicano advocacy organization to which California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante once belonged, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, is "racist" (which I have discussed a couple of times) has been picking up a great deal of momentum in the past couple of weeks.

Now we're reading about it and hearing about it from Fox News, as well as Slate's Mickey Kaus and that paragon of right-wing virtue herself, Michelle Malkin. Most recently, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit has weighed in.

The last is one of the most disturbing of these, because Reynolds (whose outsize influence is especially concerning) links to an article from the clearly racist and anti-Semitic La Voz de Aztlan to suggest that MEChA, and by extension, Bustamante, is "racist and homophobic." Yet this connection has been thoroughly debunked, particularly in these quarters. Most of the MEChA critics have, since then, avoided this clearly false meme -- and yet Reynolds repeats and endorses it here, giving it fresh life. One wonders how many times it has to be exposed before it will finally die.

In any event, these developments are extremely interesting to me, because the more I've examined MEChA, the more persuaded I am that it is decidedly not a racist organization. Indeed, the further I've looked, the more persuaded I am that this charge is itself a form of transmission of the right-wing extremist agenda into mainstream conservatism -- which is, of course, the main concern of "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism."

You may recall that much of this discussion originated with the eminently reasonable and intelligent Tacitus, with whom I've been engaged in something of a running debate over this (though I dropped out last week so I could finish the manuscript I've been working on). In his most recent post on the subject, he continued more or less the same line of argumentation, and discarded much of my analysis over my use of the definition for "hate" groups in analyzing MEChA.

Yet for all his extensive arguments, neither Tacitus nor anyone else offers what might pass for a reasonable definition of racism, nor (even more to the point) what constitutes a racist organization or group -- though they seem all too eager to bandy the term about. I thought I'd done so in the previous post, but obviously I need to make the point clearer. So let's begin by stipulating our terminology.


First, what is racism? Many are content to settle for a formulation derived from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech: that racism means we "judge the content of a man's character by the color of his skin." This is a nice intuitive definition, but applied to the real world, it's also clearly incomplete, because it would also subsume the view of those people who seek to protect and promote their ethnic identities (this runs the gamut from Hutterites to Jews to Irish-American societies), including those who would lift up victims of racial oppression by reassuring them of their worth in society (including the JACL and NAACP). In the latter case particularly the term "racist" is inapplicable, because these groups are specifically devoted to combating the effects of racism. In other words, merely advocating the worth of one's racial or ethnic identity does not make one racist.

Racism has important elements that extend beyond mere racial awareness or advocacy: specifically, it emphasizes exclusion and bigoted discrimination, and often extends to outright eliminationism. (Some have argued that it must also include elements of power, that is, it is only real racism if it arises from the element that controls society -- viz., white people are the only American racists. I believe this argument is neither logically sound nor reflective of the real world. What is true is that racism's effects are especially pernicious when practiced by those in power and institutionalized.)

Now, to define a racist organization obviously must take these elements into account. This is why, last time out, I referred to the SPLC's definition of a hate group:
All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

Let's make the use of the term "hate group" clear. This term is meant as an umbrella to include various kinds of bigotry, including racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Just so we can describe specifically racist organizations, we can refine our terms further, i.e.:
All racist groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire race of people.

To which, just for purposes of clarity, let's specify: these attacks are characterized by exclusionism, eliminationism and bigoted discrimination.

All right, let's see how well MEChA fits this definition. We'll start by looking at the area on which most of its critics have focused, its rhetoric.

MEChA's rhetoric

Most of the characterizations of MEChA's rhetoric have ranged from the extremely tendentious to outright gross distortions. And nearly all of them are devoid of both historical and current social context.

One of the prime examples of distortion in the debate is the way a number of the anti-Mechistas, including Malkin and Kaus, have zeroed in on the MEChA slogan: Por la Raza, todo. Fuera la Raza, nada.

Kaus offers the translation of this slogan that in fact has been used by every one of the MEChA critics:
(Many American Jewish groups fight against assimilation too, but I haven't seen any with a slogan equivalent to "For the Race, everything. For those outside the race, nothing.")

Before supposedly smart people go publishing such nonsense, it would help if they consulted, say, a native Spanish speaker (and one would think one would be available somewhere in Santa Monica).

A more accurate translation of the slogan would recognize that though "Por" translates to the English "For," it is used in a very specific sense of the word -- namely, "On behalf of" or "In the service of". "Fuera" is not "for those outside" but rather refers to the speaker, and means "Apart from." So what the slogan actually says is this:
In the service of the race, everything
Apart from the race, nothing

There is nothing remotely racist, particularly in the sense of being exclusionist or derogatory, about this, of course. The second line clearly only refers to the need to maintain one's ethnic and cultural identity. It is only racist if you deliberately mistranslate it: "For those outside the race, nothing."

Others have focused on the rhetoric contained within MEChA's founding documents, particularly certain passages in El Plan de Santa Barbara, which I explored in depth last time out and observed was only exclusivist under an extremely tendentious reading, and is only mildly derogatory in one notable instance, the use of the word "gabacho" to describe non-Latinos (and this is only mildly derogatory; it roughly translates as "Frenchy").

To this, Tacitus responds with a post in which he displaces the nouns in El Plan de Santa Barbara referring to Latinos and whites and Aztlan with similar nouns describing whites and other races or ethnicities and a "white homeland." The resulting statement, of course, is rather nakedly racist, and Tacitus concludes that El Plan de Santa Barbara must be so as well.

This is not a real argument but a rhetorical trick, one that conveniently elides both the historical and social context of the respective statements in a way that occludes the respective truthfulness and purpose of each. It assumes a kind of zero-sum view of both history and the current society in which the real-world oppression of minorities is a null factor, when in truth it affects the entire meaning of the words.

It is important to remember who were the chief practitioners of racism for most of this nation's history: namely, its dominant white majority. Blacks, Indians, Asians, Jews and certainly Latinos have all, in the past few centuries, faced an uphill battle against this institutionalized racism, and they have only made gains by asserting without apology their right to a full place at the table -- full political, social and economic equity.

And America, to its credit, has finally responded in the past half-century. There can be little question that all these races have made great strides, in no small part because of a massive change in attitudes among majority whites. However, anyone assuming that these changes have meant that racism is dead and a non-factor in modern society is conveniently ignoring the 8,000 or more hate crimes that occur every year in this country; they overlook the continuing overwhelming poverty that is endemic both to Indian reservations and migrant-labor camps; they gloss over the continuing effects of redlining on creating racial balkanization, all the while undermining genuine attempts to address these problems by claiming that they actually deepen our racial divisions.

If indeed racism is only a problem in our rear-view mirrors, then why the uproar over Trent Lott's fondness for segregation and his long-term connections to white-supremacist organizations? Why are we still having debates over whether or not such clear continuing manifestations of mainstream white supremacism as Charles Murray and The Bell Curve are racist? Why are we now faced with fresh anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about "cultural Marxism" from mainstream conservatives?

It is also important to remember that the chief factor in the past half-century's change of attitudes among the white majority has been the rise of multiculturalism, which as I've discussed previously, was specifically a response to white supremacism, which it ultimately replaced. This was, frankly, a necessary step for any democratic society that extols equal opportunity and fair play.

Multiculturalism, it must be understood, is not reverse racism, as some of its current critics might have you think. Rather, it is a sort of cultural expression of the economist's adage, "A rising tide lifts all boats." The empowerment of every member of society, of every racial group, is a net gain for society and benefits everyone of every race. Gains for Latinos, as such, do not need to come at the expense of other groups, nor should they be viewed that way in a democratic society.

It may be convenient for a privileged white male like Mickey Kaus to sniff about "a distasteful and discredited identity politics," which has become a code word for multiculturalism. The reality, however, is that the primary alternatives to this worldview remain either white supremacism or watered-down versions of it that are nonetheless essentially anti-egalitarian and undemocratic. Moreover, multiculturalism has been the chief vehicle for a cultural change that has been both necessary and healthy. Of course, much of today's conservative movement is making a concerted drive to undermine it, while conveniently neglecting to offer constructive alternatives.

Placed in its proper context, the rhetoric of the early Mechistas is clearly a reaction against the historical oppression of Latinos by whites; its characterization of the invasion of the North American continent by whites may be colored by resentment and a desire to refute the white-supremacist view that Latinos are undeserving of a place at the table, but it is essentially accurate. Whites did invade the continent. They not only displaced the native peoples, they committed widespread acts of murder and genocide against them, and oppressed them politically and economically for centuries. Anyone who tries to claim this is not historical fact is either self-blinded or unread.

Nor, for that matter, is there anything essentially exclusionist or derogatory about the early Mechista worldview. (I must also note that while the language may be read as suggestive, it is never specifically secessionist.) After all, there is a significant difference between refuting the worldview that justifies the practice of racial discrimination against you and your fellow minorities, and practicing that racial discrimination. Indeed, they are diametrically opposed to one another.

Comparatively, the document produced by Tacitus is in fact fairly typical of the kind of nonsense practiced by whites: a paranoia about an invasion of "blacks" or other races, and depredations by Jews and other conspirators, is only a fantasy that has been deployed over the past century or more by the historically dominant white majority to heighten the bigoted oppression of minorities. The altered context makes it quite specifically exclusionist as well as derogatory.

Indeed, it well echoes the kind of genuinely racist material that is produced by such former Trent Lott allies as the neo-Confederate League of the South (about whom, it must be noted, conservatives continue to evince strangely little concern, at least compared to the volumes now spewing about MEChA). Consider, for instance, "Statement of Purpose" from the LoS:
Consequently, we reject the central government's continuing usurpation of state sovereignty and support the restoration of self-government to the Southern people. If this means secession and formation of a Southern nation, then so be it. Self-government, as our forebears understood, is necessary for the preservation of ordered liberty.

If the South were its own nation, its GNP would rank it in the top five nations of the world. Its laws would better reflect the natural conservatism and Christian roots of the Southern people. We could enjoy low taxes, sound money, secure private property rights, and a free-market economy. We could follow a foreign policy of armed neutrality, leave the UN, and oppose the New World Order. We could once again reward merit and abolish the Welfare State and Affirmative Action. We could severely limit immigration. We could get government out of our children's education. We could remove ourselves from the current judicial tyranny. In short, we could seize control of our destiny as a distinct people.

Or this "Position Paper on Race":
This does not mean, however, that we must subscribe to the flawed Jacobin notion of egalitarianism, nor does it mean that white Southerners should give control over their civilisation and its institutions to another race, whether it be native blacks or Hispanic immigrants. Nowhere, outside of liberal dogma, is any nation called upon to commit cultural and ethnic suicide. Furthermore, our surrender would ultimately be regretted by all parties as the remaining liberties were squandered by those who had no desire to preserve the Eurocentric, (and therefore "racist"), institution of the rule of law.

This language is not only clearly derogatory and exclusionist (you can look elsewhere on the LoS site for lots more of both) it is quite openly secessionist. Notice that the language here is unmistakable; one does not require a tendentious reading to find these passages all of the above.

In contrast, the MEChA documents are quite benign. Its rhetoric is, undoubtedly, inflammatory and angry, but it is only vaguely exclusionist and decidedly short on the attacks on other races and derogation of them. The strident tenor seems shrill and overstated in today's context -- but then, it is important to remember that most of these documents were written in 1969, a time when the effects of white racism were still much more apparent.

Perhaps more representative of the direction taken by the organization is "The Philosophy of MEChA", written apparently in about the same time frame. Especially noteworthy is this passage:
As MEChA, we must accept the challenge to combat all forms of oppression, and manifestations as experienced through racism, sexism, and homophobia, both inside and outside of our Movement.

Indeed, the entirety of this document is focused on civic duty and coordinated action, all of which are time-honored principles of peaceful social change. Its orientation is unquestionably multicultural.

Moreover, a survey of campus Mechista Web sites reveals this same kind of benign advocacy. It is clear that this, and not creation of an exclusivist Aztlan and a plan to "drive out the gringos," is what MEChA is primarily about.

MEChA's actions

Rhetoric, of course, is one thing. But any organization's true purpose is revealed by what it does.

In this context, it is clear that not only is MEChA not racist, it is a constructive and entirely mainstream organization that is in the best tradition of civil-rights advocacy in America.

Perhaps it would help first to review the histories of definitively racist groups in America, particularly in what their actions were compared to their rhetoric. It is worth observing first broadly that white supremacism as a general factor has been responsible for a multitude of atrocities, ranging from slavery to the genocide of Native Americans to the "lynching era" to segregation and Jim Crow -- as well, of course, as the mistreatment of Latinos.

Consider the record of racist organizations -- particularly those to which MEChA has been compared by conservatives in this current brouhaha. First, there is the Ku Klux Klan, which has endured even today through multiple incarnations in America. The first of these was, according to Robert Paxton, the first historical emanation of fascism, the Reconstruction Klan. Here is its record, according to Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America:
Richard Maxwell Brown's comprehensive study of vigilante violence in America estimates that in the four years 1868-71 there were more than four hundred Klan lynchings in the South, Union general Phil Sheridan calculated that 3,500 whites and blacks were killed between 1865 and 1875, Ida Wells-Barnett, writing in the 1890s, put the number of Negroes killed by whites since 1865 at 10,000m with only three white men executed for crimes against blacks in that period. … Author Dorothy Sterling, who combed through man thousands of documents and oral histories in her preparation of a noted compendium on the Reconstruction era, cited 20,000 as the number killed by the Klan just in the four years 1868-71.

The Klan revived in 1916 after years of dormancy and was responsible for a broad range of lynchings, "race riots" and anti-black purges in the South over the ensuing 15 years or so. And it has continued to be associated even today with an array of hate crimes and heinous acts of terrorism against various minorities.

Overseas, the most notorious racist organizations were the European fascist governments, particularly Nazi Germany. I trust I don't even have to go there.

For those who would argue that a group like MEChA is only nascent in its racism, and could eventually wreak such horrors if its agenda flamed out of control, it is worth remembering that racist organizations nearly always display their true colors almost immediately. The Klan, as just seen, was violent and terroristic from the start; so, too, were the European fascists, particularly during the fascista and SA years.

And what has MEChA done? Advocate for increasing the numbers of Latinos in higher education. Organize student rallies. Emphasize self-determination.

Here is how one commenter named "cat" on Atrios' boards put it:
MeCHA has been an integral part of student life for decades; many, if not most, of my Chicano friends and acquaintances were involved with it; it was then and probably is now an advocacy organization which worked to bring Chicanos (now Latinos) into the educational institutions, to feed and clothe underprivileged children in the community, including those of the migrant farmworkers, was involved with Caesar Chavez in advocating for better working conditions for the migrant workers, and provided tutoring, mentoring, and fellowship for students, as do many other student organizations.

This view is one expressed consistently by people who have experience with MEChA. Among these is O. Ricardo Pimentel, a columnist for the Arizona Republic, who recently penned a column addressing the current campaign from the right, "California coup plays a race card on Bustamante":
But let us acknowledge that MEChA was born in the racial turmoil and rhetoric leading up to 1969. Its founding historical documents, El Plan de Aztl?n and El Plan de Santa Barbara, contain incendiary language.

But the truth is, few joining even back then were thinking of overthrowing government. They were talking about changing society, for the better.

"We all understood the history of MEChA," says Loredo, a MEChA president at Phoenix College in 1987. "We took it in the context of the times, 1969 (the founding year)."

To liberate Aztl?n, Loredo and other MEChistas pushed to get more Latinos into college and performed community service. Many, like Bustamante, entered public service.

MEChA elsewhere also led walkouts and protests to form Chicano studies programs and to push for more Chicano faculty hires.

Indeed, Republicans who wish to push the argument that MEChA is racist might want to talk to Mike Madrid, an advisor to the GOP on Latino affairs (and someone for whom this meme is probably the biggest nightmare since Proposition 187), who had this to say in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:
"It's bizarre to assume this is some kind of radical group, seeking to overthrow part of the United States," said Mike Madrid, who has worked on Latino affairs for the state Republican Party. "It was part of the Brown Beret and Chicano studies movement, but it's mainly a social group and has been for years. To suggest it's involved in paramilitary training or some underhanded conspiracy is ludicrous."

Or, as Nathan Newman adroitly puts it:
No doubt there were individual members within MEChA way back who used such language, but for the organization as a whole, the idea of self-determination has been one of educational uplift within a multicultural country, as American a goal as apple pie. Anyone who has worked with MEChA students -- as I have -- can tell you they are committed to multi-racial organizing and respect towards people of all races, genders, and sexual orientation.

They are a hell of a lot more tolerant and supportive of diversity than any of their critics.

Let me extend that point even further: Their critics, intentionally or not, are actually helping to popularize one of the extremist right's longtime favorite claims: that the civil-rights groups that oppose them are themselves racist.

The origins of the meme

People who have tracked the extremist right for any length of time are more than abundantly familiar with one of the favorite arguments of such folk as David Duke and William Pierce: The NAACP, or the Urban League, or the Anti-Defamation League are all secretly racist.

We've been hearing it for years, and we still hear it today. Consider, for instance, Duke's latest opus, which is titled Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question.

What is clearly advocacy on behalf of minorities in the face of the long-term effects of white supremacism, and is in fact its clear antithesis, is declared by its very opponents to represent the same bigotry they practice. This is a kind of Newspeak or Doublethink that we have come to expect of incipient fascists, but it is not what we expect to hear from mainstream conservatives.

And yet that is precisely what has been happening as increasing numbers of conservative and even ostensibly "neutral" voices have been repeating the meme that MEChA is racist. The organization, as I've demonstrated, is discernibly neither radical nor extremist, but is in fact an effective, civic-minded and valuable component of the wholly appropriate advocacy of civil rights for Latinos.

If there is any doubt that the anti-MEChA meme is extremist in its origins, consider the Fox News story on the matter -- which is not only factually wrong throughout (it incorrectly identifies, for instance, violence that occurred at a 1996 San Diego rally as being caused by Mechistas, when in fact the attacks on anti-immigration protesters were carried out by a splinter group with no affiliation with MEChA), its original version (which has since been edited to remove the references) cited as one of its main sources none other than Glenn Spencer of American Patrol, which in fact is listed by the SPLC as a hate group. Spencer, of course, has been one of the chief progenitors of this meme, and there is little doubt that he is both a racist and an extremist.

This is not the only place it's turning up. In addition to mainstream conservative sites, the "MEChA is racist" meme is turning up all around the far right, particularly in racist anti-immigrant circles. And with it is emerging an attached stream of genuine and rather naked racism. This is occurring even in respectable circles of the blogosphere, including at the intelligent and thoughtful blog run by Tacitus, where this comment was made by one of his readers, someone named "J":
So when they see aztlan belongs to us (those wo plant the seeds, water the fields) and not the foreign Europeans. Additionally they do not recognize the border between the countries. Now put into context the saying "For the race (Raza) everything. For those outside the race nothing."

Starting to get the picture.

That could explain why Mexicans are streaming into california like ants at a picnic. They are trying to take over Mexico from within because they believe it is theirs. So in addition to being racist against gringos, they are actually espousing takeover of sovereign american states. Makes you wonder about Bustamante in california, considering he was in Mecha at its most revolutionary time and refuses to dissacosiate himself fromt he group. Also his policies and those of Gray Davis seem to suggest that he is seeking unlimited imigration and benefits for all illegals. I guess, if you can take over a state without using guns why not work the system.

If California has any sanity whatsoever they will not elect Bustamante, and they will close their borders asap, instead of alowing themselves to be overrun by those who believe California belongs TO THEM.

Hint to Tacitus: One of the giveaway earmarks of genuine racism is vermin references, particularly comparisons of an entire racial group to various low forms of life. And arguments that we close the border are the purview of outfits like American Patrol and their white-collar counterparts like U.S. English.

I am fairly confident that bloggers like Tacitus and others who are presenting their arguments are devoid of any racist tinges themselves. They are arguing from a kind of logic and facts, misplaced as they might be. However, in many ways, this meme is simply the latest permutation in a meta-theme we've been hearing from the right for the past several years -- namely, that whatever stupidity the right might be guilty has its equal counterpart in the left (see, e.g., Jack Shafer's recent blithering nonsense).

Well, the truth is that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes the left is stupid in ways that are unique to itself. And sometimes, as in this case, so is the right.

It is hard in the end not to come to the conclusion that the proliferation of the "MEChA is racist" meme is intended to blunt the emerging news over Arnold Schwarzenegger's substantial connections to U.S. English, a group whose racist underpinnings are themselves fairly substantial. And indeed, there are good reasons why Schwarzenegger should distance himself from them and resign his position with them.

Cruz Bustamante, on the other hand, frankly has nothing to apologize for.

[Update: Ted Barlow at Crooked Timber has a long and insightful post on this topic too. He covers some of the same ground, but has other material -- and makes some key points too. Go read it.]

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