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Looking for a Cut Card

When a million immigrants flooded the streets of Los Angeles, and a quarter as many thronged into the customary protest space in Washington, D.C., I had three feelings. I was proud, appreciative but also envious. And my feelings reminded me of the reasons that we develop ethnic studies programs, institutional memory and connections among people of color.

Here was my pride — they took our language. Took it and appropriated it as if it were uniquely theirs. They took Dr. Martin Luther King, who never exclusively belonged to Black folk anyway, and used his words and his energy. They took the playwright Douglas Turner Ward, and appropriated the themes of his play “Day of Absence” when they said they would no longer be invisible. It is as if African-American people had passed a baton and Latinos had picked it up. Since we’d not seen that kind of energy, excitement and “street heat” in decades, those of us who had invested in that heat from the beginning could feel nothing but pride.

And then I felt appreciation for the folks who, legal or illegal, took it to the streets.  This was not a convenient march, not a Saturday thing, when folk were off work. It happened on a Monday, on a weekday, and I didn’t see many of the folks out there wearing Dunbar’s mask, you know, the one that “grins and lies that hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” In other words, the folks who marched and rallied, really marched and rallied. They missed work, got in people’s faces, told their stories and told them with exuberance. You had to appreciate that.

But then, I have to say that I was jealous. Plain old envious and jealous. I identified the “cut card” that our Latino brothers and sisters were dealt when a silly U.S. Congress proposed that anyone who was illegally in the United States was a felon. That would have made more than 11 million people criminals. We don’t say they are felons when they are cutting our lawns, cleaning our homes or watching our kids. How do they get to be felons when a group of mostly White men meet and make wrong-headed decisions? That was the line someone drew in the sand, and it was a galvanizing line, a line that too many Hispanic immigrants said they could not swallow.

But where is the cut card for African-Americans? We have fools who call Black women leaders “ghetto sluts” and “hos” and we want to parse it, have erudite conversations about their free speech rights. We have organizations fighting diversity, and we want to talk about the merits of the level playing field without looking at the outcomes. We have a young Black woman accusing some members of the Duke University lacrosse team of rape, and reporters who refer to the woman as a stripper, as if she has no other identity, not a student at North Carolina Central, not a mother, not a worker. We discuss all this, but there is no cut card, no galvanizing statement, no lightening rod that will bring Black people out and bring us together.

And where are our female allies? Most of the time, White feminists bristle at the notion that sex workers are to be defined that way. But in the Duke case, groups like the National Organization for Women are painfully silent. Are they quiet because they are unsure? Because the accuser is Black? Can they at least get riled at Rush Limbaugh who has made an ugly and ignorant moral decision by calling a single mom who is working hard for the rent nothing more than a “ho?” It seems that organized women have no cut card, either, at least when Black women are protagonists in rape cases.

The question for the civil rights community, then, is a question that reverberates from the Latino immigrant action. What are the words, the statements, the comments, the actions that you will not accept? What will it take for us to say, “no more,” to organize around the very offense of the action? For some, it was the notion that 11 million people could be made felons. 

These current events must be viewed through the lens of history that some ethnic studies programs provide. After all, only those who have studied the civil rights movement can understand the connections made between the 1963 March on Washington and the 2006 March for Immigrant Rights. Only those who have studied the role and ruse of stereotypes will understand that the Duke University lacrosse allegations are less shocking than they are “business as usual.” Too many White men, in the annals of history, have seen Black women as nothing more than sexual playthings. 

Black people, and other people of color, have to find as strong a cut card as Latinos found with their response to absurdly proposed congressional legislation. Part of the cut card is on education. We must insist that young people learn a history that reflects the absurdity of contemporary life. 

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