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Civil Rights Fight Of Today: Complacency?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which featured Martin Luther King Junior's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Now, though, we want to turn from looking at the past to thinking about the future, and to do that, we've called a new generation of people who are leading the movement toward social justice forward, but each in their own way - in the streets, in the media, on the web and in the board room.

Joining us now are Rinku Sen, president of the Applied Research Center and publisher of the news and advocacy site Colorlines. She's with us from New York. Farajii Muhammad is host of WEAA's "Listen Up!" program in Baltimore. He's also organizer with the Black Youth Project 100. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Merid Berhe. He's a businessman. He develops strategies for Fortune 500 companies to compete in emerging markets. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.


MERID BERHE: Thank you so much for having us.

RINKU SEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So I'd like to start by asking each of you - each in your own way - what do you think is the top civil rights priority today? I've been asking all the people I've interviewed this week, you know, what they think the civil rights issue is of today, of the policymakers, you know, the pundits, the journalists. I'd like to ask you this question. And, Farajii, I'm going to start with you. What's the top priority today in your view?

MUHAMMAD: Complacency. When you're talking about what's all that's happening, and as we talk about the 50th anniversary and all of that, there's this very soft-toned type of complacency that's happening. You know, we do this commemoration and the celebration, but at the same time, the mantra is still the same - justice, jobs, you know, freedom. But there's this level of complacency, and it's this thing where there's no connect between the struggle and then the people, especially with young people. It's not a tangible.

It's not something that you see on the Constitution or anything like that. But it's just the thinking of the people. Do you feel like there's a struggle that is even necessary? Are we mad enough? Are we pissed off enough to the point that we say, you know what? Enough is enough - whether we're looking at Trayvon Martin's situation or anything. Are we upset enough to want to change the reality of what's going on? So I think that the culture of complacency has to be one of the key issues that we have to address first.

MARTIN: Rinku, what about you? What do you think the priority is today?

SEN: Well, I think a major problem that we have as Americans today is that people define racism in a very narrow way. They define it as always being individual and intentional and overt. And so if there isn't a noose hanging somewhere, then they can't recognize that there is actually racial discrimination present in that situation. But as a Taylor Branch, Dr. King's biographer, has said, Dr. King saw that race was a part of everything, but not all of anything. To me, that means that every issue that we are dealing with has a very serious racial component, and our challenge is to get Americans to deal with that racial dimension without dismissing race talk as, quote-unquote, race bating, simply because they can't identify the individual with the intention to commit an overt act of racial discrimination.

So we need to redefine racism as being systemic and often hidden and often unconscious. And recognize that people with very good intentions can still make individual and collective decisions that lead to terrible racist impact in jobs, in the criminal justice system, in schools, in housing, in every issue that affects our lives as Americans.

MARTIN: Merid Berhe, I wanted to invite you to this conversation and you may be wondering why I invited you to this conversation and others may be as well. I was thinking of the line from Spike Lee's movie "School Daze" where one of the characters says, the most important thing I can do for the poor is not be one of them. Do you feel that economic empowerment is the most important priority for moving the country forward?

BERHE: Absolutely. I think it is. I think our problem is that we're simply poor in this country. We don't know how to make money. We don't know the functions and the realities of how to make money in this country. And I think until we get to the point where we understand the principles that are underlying our plight, then we're simply going to perpetuate what - the problems that we've been facing for our generation.

MARTIN: And who's the we in that sentence?

BERHE: People of color in general.

MARTIN: So how did you decide what your role was going to be?

BERHE: Well...

MARTIN: What struck you?

BERHE: ...Sure. I was honest about myself in terms of what my capabilities were, and so the best thing I figured to do was to be smart and rich like the rest of them. So perhaps that's the way to go about approaching, not necessarily solving social justice, but again, as you just said, not to be one of them. And that's a starting point to fixing some of these problems.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

BERHE: I think in the community - in the community of color - the number one problem is that we don't understand the system that funnels money into communities and that funnels money into schools, that funnels money into hospitals. And I think that lack of understanding is - perpetuates some the problems that we're still facing.

MARTIN: Well, that's interesting because I think some people would disagree with that. Rinku, you might disagree with that. I think some might argue that it isn't that people don't understand the mechanisms - that they've been explicitly excluded from those mechanisms.

SEN: Yeah, the mechanisms by which people make money are not the mechanisms that work for most people of color and, frankly, for most everyday white people in this country, either. You know, the problem is that we think that if someone has a crappy job, that job is naturally crappy, like God has made it a bad job. But, in fact, we assign value to jobs based on who does them. In history, for example, when men did clerical work, they got paid well. That job had a career path.

When women began to do clerical work during and after World War II, especially, wages went down and the career path disappeared. If you think about nursing, when women are the majority of nurses, they make not great wages. Where they're unionized, they make much better. But as men have entered into nursing, there are studies that have shown that they are earning 30 percent more than the women who are doing that same job. So we need to change the way that Americans actually think about jobs and change who Americans think is responsible for improving a job. The reaction...

MARTIN: Well, I hear you...

SEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Focusing a lot on jobs. I mean, you've written - and I wanted to ask you about that - I mean, you've written books that are basically instruction guides for community activists. I wanted to ask what are some of the strategies that you recommend now, and are they different from the strategies that we are now seeing revisited in this commemoration this week of the March on Washington? I mean, is organizing different now?

SEN: Organizing is different now partly because the structure of the economy has changed so dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s. In another 50 years from now, it's quite possible that none of us will actually be an employee of any clear employer. We'll all be subcontractors. We'll be working part-time, sometimes multiple jobs. So the form of our organization has to change because the way our existing laws and our big unions are organized don't actually fit the shape of the economy anymore.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with a roundtable of young leaders about the movement toward social justice and civil rights today, what that movement looks like, if indeed there is even a need for such a movement. Our guests are Rinku Sen. That's who was speaking just now. She's publisher of Colorlines. Business strategist Merid Berhe and Farajii Muhammad. He's host of WEAA's "Listen Up!" I was asking Merid how he chose his path. Farajii, I wanted to ask how you chose yours. I mean, I've noticed that you have two, sort of, focuses of concern.


MARTIN: One is actual organizing and working with...

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Young people, but also the media...


MARTIN: ...As a host.

MUHAMMAD: Yes. As a young man growing up in Baltimore City, I saw that there was something that was needed, that was necessary. And so myself and my partner, Tamara, we started - I started organizing, really, years ago. But then, also, I joined on with the Black Youth Project 100. That's a collect of young leaders who are looking to organize people beyond electoral politics. So what we strive to do at this point is getting young people involved in the whole process.

MARTIN: But involved to do what?

MUHAMMAD: To get involved in any issue that is - that's not in order, you know, whether it's justice, economics, whether it's issues dealing with stop-and-frisk, racial profiling - any of those things. Young people need to have a voice at the table. You asked how is organizing different. Organizing is different, not just because of economics - that certainly plays a part of it - but because the mentality of people has certainly changed from 50 years ago.

Black people knew, in 1963, who the enemy was. But now the enemy and those who don't have the best interest of the black community and the minority communities at heart, that has changed now. Sometimes, we can look at each other and be our own worst enemy.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because many young Americans say that they don't necessarily believe that race is so relevant to their lives today. I wanted to ask if that's true of the young people that you work with.

MUHAMMAD: Young people already had a diminished hope in the system as it was. After Trayvon Martin's situation, it was explicitly clear to all of us that black life doesn't matter. You're talking about placing our hope in a system. I'm not for all of that. I'm not for, you know, let's all just get together to be together, let's try to keep the system going. I personally wanted to make sure that this system is changed, and I mean revolutionized to the point where we have to uproot some of the old ideas of white supremacy - that black is inferior. And that starts with having a change in the thinking and the mindset of people.

And I think people look at Dr. King's message of "I Have a Dream" and just stay there. But Dr. King evolved by the time he was assassinated in 1968. He had a different view of war. He had a different view of jobs and justice and whatnot. So we have to evolve in our understanding of his vision - that it didn't stop in 1963, that we have to look at some other avenues and have to make sure that young people are involved explicitly, especially in the black community - be explicitly involved in the decision making.

MARTIN: OK. Rinku, what about that? I mean, your group - one of things that's interesting about your group - I mentioned that you're a publisher of Colorlines, but you are also head of a group that's explicitly activists, which is to say that you're not just sharing research and journalism, but you're also encouraging people to actually do things.

SEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So do what?

SEN: One of the things that we did for three years was run a campaign called "Drop the I-Word" where we convinced people and had folks pledge to not use the language of illegality in attachment to immigrants. And eventually, we got the Associated Press to drop that particular phrase - illegal immigrant, quote-unquote - from their style book, which has had an enormous effect on how we now talk about immigrants in the press. I've spent a lot of my life working to build multiracial organizations and alliances. I'm not a person who says we have to move beyond a black-white paradigm.

This country runs on a black-white binary. The problem with these binaries is that you have to fit everybody else into it somewhere. And so as our country's demographic change, people like me - I'm an Indian immigrant - our populations are growing. So when you're building a movement like that, I think making sure that we recognize the historical - really, the weight of the black-white relationship and of, you know, all of the structures that have been built to control black people in this country.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about what's the focus of your organizing now? I mean, I think people often have some nostalgia for earlier eras because it seemed that the choices were simpler, even though I don't know that they were...

SEN: Right.

MARTIN: ...But they think that they were. But it does seem logical that if you're in an era in which you can't vote because of the color of your skin, you have virtually no access to higher education or quality education, period...

SEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...You have no access to quality, you know, healthcare, you basically have the worst of everything because of your color, then that's a pretty, you know, obvious direction to go in. What's the direction now?

SEN: Yeah. I think that the topic areas remain the same, but the kinds of changes that you might be needing to fight for and figure out how to fight for will differ. So in healthcare, for example, we're now implementing the Affordable Care Act. Whether or not people of color get access to the benefits of that act will depend on what appear to be race-neutral decisions. Will a state expand its Medicaid program? Will programs provide cultural and linguistic access? Language access, because of the growth of immigrant communities, is a big racial justice issue.

It's a big way in which people get cut off from healthcare, from education, from voting. So in any issue that we're looking at - and at the Applied Research Center, we're working heavily on employment, on immigration and on law enforcement abuse - those are our three things right now. But in any issue you're looking at, you want to be able to look through the lens of people with different identities so that you can figure out how to solve the problem, really, for everybody.

MARTIN: To that end, I wanted to ask sort of a final word from each of you. One of the reasons that - well, Taylor Branch - Rinku, you mentioned Taylor Branch earlier as Dr. King's biographer. And one of the things he talked about when we spoke with him earlier this week is how the - one of the reasons he thinks that people remember this day - the March on Washington and the "I Have a Dream" speech - is that it is ultimately helpful. So I wanted to ask each of you, as a final word, what's your vision? Do you have a dream? Farajii, do you have one?

MUHAMMAD: Oh, absolutely. The dream is - is that I hope that my generation becomes more conscious of who they are and they can answer the question of, who am I and what role do I play in this movement. My dream is that we want to make sure that black youth is conscious, not of just who they are, but also can take that knowledge and expand that leadership, so that way that there is a new consciousness that creates progress and change.

We should not be talking about jobs and justice 50 years from now. I have a two-month-year-old son, and I don't want to talk to him and I don't want him to kind of continue that mantra and continue to have this kind of spirit of begging and pleading and asking for freedom. That's not what we're doing. We're in a generation of fulfillment. So what that means is that if we're going to be fulfilling some destiny, then we have to fulfill it to change the system all the way down to its root to make sure that things are done.

MARTIN: Merid, what's yours? Do you have one? What's your vision?

BERHE: I do have a dream...

MARTIN: Me, too.

BERHE: ...And my dream and vision is for our community to understand that, ultimately, the well-being of these communities and those who live in it ultimately rests on several different factors, one of which is economic. And to that end, we need to focus on education, focus on STEM programs so that - that's where the jobs are, ultimately. So we need to guide young people in that direction. And, also, entrepreneurship. We need to start businesses. We need to keep the businesses in our community, and that's the vision that I want to see. That's the vision that I want to replicate in the community.

MARTIN: Rinku, what about you? Final thought.

SEN: People call me crazy, but I have a vision of eradicating racial hierarchy, of just taking apart racial order so that people can be everything we are - racially, culturally and all the other identities that we have - and not have reward and punishment attached to that identity.

MARTIN: Do you think we'll get there?

SEN: I do. I'm going to claim it.

MUHAMMAD: Hopefully, it doesn't take 50 years to do it, though.

BERHE: Yeah.

SEN: It may take forever, but all we can do is our part. All we can do is our generation's part.

MUHAMMAD: That's right.

SEN: And there's plenty to do.

MARTIN: Well, we'll get together and discuss it. I may not be there, but you all will be there. So - to paraphrase someone. Rinku Sen is the president of the Applied Research Center and publisher of the news site Colorlines. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Farajii Muhammad is the host of NPR member station WEAA's "Listen Up!" program. He's also an organizer with Black Youth Project 100. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Merid Berhe. He's an international business strategist. He's based in D.C. Thank you all so much for joining us on this important day.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you, Michel.

SEN: Thank you, Michel.

BERHE: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.