What We Talk About When We Talk About Race, Part One

Editor’s note: This article appeared originally on Createquity, founded and edited by Ian David Moss, who serves as research director for the national arts service organization Fractured Atlas. It is reprinted here with kind permission. You may read Part Two here

By Ian David Moss

Young whites poring over books, memorizin’ but never learning
And I wonder how the fuck they’ll justify genocide.
“I…I was in the library, honest to God, I didn’t even know.”

—From “The Library,” by Felipe Luciano of The Original Last Poets

On March 7 of this year, my friend and I attended a screening of the film Right On!, a seminal creation of the Harlem spoken word poetry movement of the 1960s. Featuring 28 performances by a group called The Original Last Poets, Right On! is essentially a double-album-length music video that presaged MTV by over a decade. The film’s monologues-with-a-beat offer a brutally honest window into black urban life and identity in the midst of the civil rights era. According to the movie’s producer, as relayed by the marketing copy accompanying the event, it was “the first ‘totally black film’ making ‘no concession in language and symbolism to white audiences.’” It was intense, confrontational, and not quite like anything I’d seen before. I loved it.
“The Library,” quoted above, is not even close to the angriest number in Right On!’s hit parade. But watching the images of what is now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library pass by as Felipe Luciano’s fellow Last Poets mockingly intoned “The Liiiiii-bra-ree,” I couldn’t help but revel in the irony of my location: the Museum of Modern Art.

***

As it turns out, Right On!’s run at MoMA was the world premiere of a digitally restored version of the film. Lost to the public for many years, Right On! had been little more than a fading memory until the museum’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation undertook the challenge of bringing it back to life with support from donors Celeste Bartos and Paul Newman.

The work of restoring and presenting Right On! to the public is the sort of thing that institutions like MoMA routinely cite in grant applications as proof of their commitment to diversity. Yet MoMA could hardly have been a more iconic symbol of the white establishment to serve as a setting for the Poets’ time-lapsed performance. Forged from Rockefeller privilege, MoMA was founded to promote the artistry of European modernism, and the most famous works in its collection are nearly all by dead white men. It has $1 billion in net assets, pays its (white) director a seven-figure salary that places him among the best-paid nonprofit executives in New York, and charges among the highest admission fees in the country for an art museum. It was the first target of Occupy Museums. The very room where the Right On! screening took place, The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, first gained notoriety within the filmmaking community for its D. W. Griffith retrospective in 1940, which surely must have included the racist and Ku-Klux-Klan-reviving Birth of A Nation.

Remarkably, the Poets themselves made an appearance at the opening night of the run. I can only guess that it was a heart-warming spectacle of racial healing and harmony, as Luciano didn’t respond to my request to interview him. All I know is that the following night, the night I was there, I counted two black people in the audience.

***

Earlier this year, Talia Gibas analyzed Holly Sidford’s manifesto “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” for Createquity. “Fusing” has become a rallying cry for cultural equity advocates who believe that philanthropic resources are unjustly concentrated in venerable institutions with white European roots like MoMA. The study analyzed the flow of philanthropic dollars to the arts using data from the Foundation Center, and found that less than 10 percent of arts grant dollars went to serve marginalized communities, including African Americans.

Interestingly, the restoration of Right On!, undertaken by MoMA with the support of individual donors, not foundations, would not have registered as a project serving a marginalized community under Sidford’s methodology. And by excavating a treasure of the black cultural canon from functional oblivion with (from all appearances) the full cooperation of the creative individuals involved, one could argue that MoMA is doing the African American community a wonderful service, fulfilling its role as custodian of heritage in a truly inclusive way. But it’s also not hard to see the transfer in setting from underground movie theater in heady 1970 to establishment art museum in 2013 as a particularly insidious kind of cultural appropriation. It was a striking experience to watch Right On! from the comfort of MoMA, of all places. It was, in fact, like being in a museum, as if there were a glass wall between the movie and me allowing me to appreciate it as a cultural object while preventing me from truly entering its world. The raw, unfiltered power and emotion directed at the camera was boxed in and partially neutered by the time it reached me on the other side of the screen, sitting next to my white college friend and the many white people in the room who could have been my friends if I’d happened to come across them in a different context. As unmistakable as the film’s point of view was, it was easy, too easy, to compartmentalize it as an artifact of a different era, a time when revolution was in the air and the evils of racism were upfront and obvious.

***

I’m not sure there is anything that has claimed as high a brain-energy-expended-to-public-output-generated ratio for me as race this past year. Way back in February, some of you might recall, I inserted myself into a discussion about race and the arts that had been started by New Beans’s Clayton Lord, then director of audience development for Theatre Bay Area and now VP of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts. At the time, I noted that “virtually all of the recent discussion … in this particular corner of the blogosphere [was] happening among well-meaning white liberals who just can’t help themselves from occupying public space with their opinions.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council in Arizona and a longtime follower of this blog, thanked me for pointing it out and challenged me and five other bloggers — pale pasties, all of us — to “share with us some of [our] good thinking and deep reflection on [our] understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.” Piece of cake, right?

You can read the responses from Clay, Doug, Nina, Barry, Diane, and Roberto himself at the links provided. As eager as I was to participate (I promised I would, after all), extracting words from my brain these past months was like squeezing blood from a stone. The topic of race offers a white liberal like me a frustratingly narrow range of socially acceptable rhetoric. Like any self-respecting contrarian, I have no interest in saying what’s already been said, but at the same time I felt woefully underprepared to confidently take the conversation in a new direction. It took a long time, a lot of background research, and many discussions with family, friends and social and professional acquaintances who consciously engage with issues around race before I finally felt comfortable airing my views in public.

If there’s one positive and concrete suggestion I can offer in the wake of that learning process, it’s that we do what we can to create an open environment for talking honestly about race relations in all of their kaleidoscopic, maddening, shame-inducing complexity. The dialogue that Clay and Roberto have started is a great first step in that direction, but we need to keep it going if we truly want to achieve more than symbolic progress towards a more racially just sector. And the more I learn, the more strongly I suspect that in order to keep that dialogue going in an authentic way, we are going to need to take it into some very uncomfortable, challenging territory – for white people and non-white people alike, for anti-racism advocates and white privilege apologists both.

***

Several of my fellow bloggers who responded to Roberto’s prompt made valuable points about the need and opportunity to be more inclusive and welcoming in our institutions’ programming and audience engagement practices. And certain artistic works undoubtedly have the power to hold a mirror up to ourselves and question the assumptions of our environment, as Right On! was able to do for me. But I feel that this conversation is missing something crucial if we neglect to expand the frame outward, to grapple with how our country and society’s dysfunctional relationship with race informs and warps our lives more generally.

Art and arts organizations are not capable of solving racism on their own. It’s not that the arts have nothing to say about race or that diverse cultural expressions aren’t important, but in the absence of a clear and shared understanding of the underlying factors that perpetuate racism, I fear that arts-centric interventions can all too often end up being little more than a band-aid – a way to reassure ourselves that we’re doing something important and valuable when in reality we’re really having very little impact at all. I believe that the sooner we as a field start framing our efforts not around “what can we do as artists and arts administrators to promote diversity?” but rather “how does racial injustice manifest today, what are its root causes, and how can we as human beings most effectively be part of the solution?” the sooner we’ll actually have something to be proud of.

For example, I’ve now been a part of several organizations that have struggled with the fact that their staffs are mostly white. One of the most visible commitments to diversity that an organization can make is to have strong representation of people of color among its staff, board, and leadership. Not surprisingly, then, managers typically have these considerations at back of mind when entering the hiring process, and sometimes even explicitly consider race as a factor in their decision. And yet they get frustrated when they are unable to find competitive candidates of color at a rate that would, as advocated by Robert Bush, make them “look like the people [they] serve.”

Simple statistics, however, quickly start to illuminate some of the reasons behind this frustration. Virtually every arts administration job I’ve ever seen requires a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum condition of employment. I’m willing to bet that most arts administrators don’t realize that fewer than a third of American adults over the age of 25 have one. More to the point, however, black and Hispanic adults are 40 to 60 percent less likely respectively to have graduated from college than whites. So if having a Bachelor’s truly is a requirement for doing the job well*, then “success” as it relates to representativeness actually means matching the proportion of people with college degrees, not the general population.

Of course, if you have any conscience at all, the above rationalization is unsatisfying. It openly admits and does absolutely nothing about a basic racial equity issue: access to opportunities based on educational attainment. But therein lies the rub: if we actually care that the disparity in college graduation rates is causing our application pool to be less diverse, that is if we care enough to do something about it, our daily work may not be the most appropriate forum in which to take action. What’s needed to close that gap, in all likelihood, goes way beyond the arts.

(*This is, of course, an important question to examine in its own right, but in the interests of not biting off more than I can chew with one article, I’m going to sidestep it for now.)

***

The stark disparity in college graduation rates described above can be seen as one manifestation of the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and black and Hispanic students. This achievement gap is present from a very early age, though not necessarily birth. One contributing factor to the achievement gap, though undoubtedly not the whole story, is the vast differential in the quality of the schools available to white students vs. students of color, especially in urban environments.

America’s cities are highly segregated geographically, in part a vestige of real estate redlining practices and white flight following the Second Great Migration in the mid-20th century. Even today, there is evidence that white homebuyers are willing to pay more money not to have to live in a neighborhood with lots of people of color. As a result, by some measures school systems in the United States are even more segregated today than they were when Brown v. Board of Education was first implemented in the 1960s. Meanwhile, school systems are governed by local rules and jurisdictions and, crucially, paid for via local property taxes. Ever wonder why people move to the suburbs to send their kids to good schools? Well, that’s why. On a per-capita basis, suburbs are much wealthier than urban cores and therefore can afford schools that are less crowded and feature more amenities for their students. People who don’t follow the education field may not realize that public school systems are struggling in large cities all across the country, not just where they live.

There is no magic bullet for fighting racial inequity; in the Atlantic Cities recently, for example, Emily Badger makes the case that establishing universal preschool is the best single thing we could do, but even the rosiest projections offered in that article make clear that such a measure would hardly erase the achievement gap. Nevertheless, as educated professionals, one action we could take that might actually make a difference is to locate ourselves in areas where our tax dollars will go to support these struggling school systems. And yet, many of my white peers are doing the exact opposite: explicitly shopping for real estate by school district, trying their best to ensure that their kid(s) will be less likely to end up in a bad situation – and, incidentally, a lot less likely to be surrounded by kids of color.

It’s awfully tough to ask someone to choose between fighting for racial equity and forgoing the best possible education for their child. I believe that sacrifice is a virtue, but I am not enough of a romantic to count on it as a large-scale strategy for social change. Perhaps the real enemy here, then, is not the racism-perpetuating behavior, but the system that sets up the incentives that encourage it. In this case, that system is the funding of public school systems based on local property taxes. If we really want to attack this part of the problem at its core, perhaps we should be advocating instead for a system that runs schools locally but funds them nationally, presumably through an expanded Department of Education. What can arts organizations do to push forward that outcome? And why is hardly anyone else talking about it?

Let’s take a step back for a minute and remember how we got here. We were wondering how a hiring manager could get her staff to better reflect the diversity of her community. Now, 900-some-odd words later, we’re talking about advocating for a giant expansion of the Department of Education, universal preschool, and in the meantime intentionally sending our kids to substandard schools. Does it make sense now why, despite all of our conversations about race and privilege, nothing ever seems to change?

***

Editor’s note: The continuation of this article can be found in Part Two of What We Talk About When We Talk About Race.

I am deeply grateful to Talia Gibas, Selena Juneau-Vogel, Daniel Reid, Hayley Roberts, F. Javier Torres, and Jason Tseng for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to many others for their conversations and perspectives that helped expand my world these past nine months.

Further reading:

As Research Director for Fractured Atlas, Ian David Moss helps funders, government agencies, and others support the field more effectively by harnessing the power of data to drive informed decision-making. Ian designed and leads implementation of Fractured Atlas’s pioneering cultural asset mapping software, Archipelago, which aggregates and visualizes information about creative activities in a particular geography in order to better illuminate who’s making art, who’s engaging with it, where it’s happening, and how it’s made possible. Since 2007, he has been editor of Createquity, a highly acclaimed arts policy blog followed by thousands of arts managers and enthusiasts around the world. Previously, he was development manager for the American Music Center and founded two first-of-their-kind performing ensembles: a hybrid electric chamber group/experimental rock band and a choral collective devoted to the music of the past 25 years. Ian has been named one of the top leaders in the nonprofit arts sector by his peers each year since 2010, and is in demand as a writer, editor, speaker, grant panelist, consultant, and guest lecturer. He holds BA and MBA degrees from Yale University and is based in Washington, D.C.

____

We accept submissions on topics relevant to the field: advocacy, artistic issues, arts policy, community building, development, employment, engagement, touring, and other topics that deal with the business of dance. We cannot publish criticism, single-company season announcements, and single-company or single artist profiles. Additionally, we welcome feedback on articles. If you have a topic that you would like to see addressed or feedback, please contact journal@danceusa.org.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of Dance/USA.