It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that’s motivated me enough to start a new blog post.  Attending design school has been one of the most consuming and exhausting endeavors I’ve undertaken. But today I read an explosive speech by Jeff Chang, and it has helped me re-orient myself back to the first reason I decided to become a landscape architect/urban planner.

I’m starting to piece together and articulate how the policies that the past 40 years, which Jeff summarizes in his speech, also encompass the physical and spatial disenfranchisement of communities of color. When Jeff describes hip-hop as a response to the “story of the rise of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment”, it is not just that these policies have socially disenfranchised communities, but that there is a a physical displacement and exclusion of communities that has resulted.  The urban renewal policies of the 1950s, combined with the drug economy, destroyed our Paradise Valleys and Hill Districts around the country, p

In school, this sense of urgency is mostly absent among students.  Too bad most of us are caught up perfecting our renderings and drawings, clicking away in front of computer screens (and here I sit blogging).  We need more conscious, justice-oriented designers to join the fight to restore our communities and take up the questions that Jeff posed at the end of his speech.

Jeff Chang

UCLA SPEECH: Beyond Borders: Education In Action
11/15/08

Whether or not you realize it yet, you made history on November 4th.

You’re America’s new majority.

HONORING OUR ROOTS

We can celebrate our victory now because of the vision and courage of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who four decades ago launched an uprising.

They wanted to confront the structural conditions that left many Asian Americans impoverished, in poor housing, subject to individual and state violence.

They wanted to shape cultural identities that were familiar and real to them, not the kind imposed through the eyes of the colonizers.

They wanted to define the link between the wars their country was waging overseas and their own status as second-class citizens at home.

They wanted institutions that would be accountable to the people, that would produce justice and equality and honor real diversity. We should remember that diversity used to be radical word. At the time, students of color numbered less than 10% at most campuses. History dictated that they weren’t supposed to be there.

Their journey led them to join with others who weren’t supposed to be there―African Americans, Chicanos, Latinos, Native Americans and progressive whites.

In 1968, they came together to launch the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University. On November 6th, they went on a 4-month strike and won the creation of a School of Ethnic Studies. Their strike sent shockwaves from Berkeley to Harvard to Columbia to UCLA, where ethnic studies and Black Studies programs were soon set up.

So began the Ethnic Studies movement.

There were immediate results. Over the next 2 years, the East Coast’s first Pan-Asian organization―Asian Americans in Action―was founded by two women in New York City. Asian American student groups would start up at 60 campuses, precursors to the Asian Pacific Coalition. And in the following decade, regional progressive Asian American networks would spring up on the west and east coasts, and in the Midwest.

These were times that produced a movement, a movement that forged an engaged identity for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through the production of knowledge, culture, and political action. It has been described as a golden age of API activism.

Two decades later, during the 80s, a time some have very wrongly dismissed as a dark age of API activism, students of color made UCLA and UC Berkeley majority-minority campuses.

Many of us fought to force the University of California to divest $1 billion in investments in South African apartheid. We demanded Ethnic Studies graduation requirements, increased support and outreach for graduate students of color, and more hiring of faculty of color. When Don Nakanishi was denied tenure, we had his back because it was a clear example of the way institutional racism works―how brilliance can go unrewarded because of bigotry. But we argued that the changing demographics of the state and country demanded nothing less than a transformation of the university.

And we won many of these battles. We forced the university to divest from South Africa and the apartheid regime fell. We got ethnic studies graduation requirements at UC Berkeley and UCLA and across the country. We saw Don Nakanishi secure tenure and become one of the most revered teachers in the country.

We won because we stood on the shoulders of those who had come before us, because we did not back down, because history was on our side.

And so we come today to pay tribute to those who came before us.

But let’s not be too nostalgic. Nostalgia is no way to honor those who came before. It’s too late for nostalgia anyway.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE 60s

Because as much as we need to pay tribute to the student activists of the 1960s, we must also fully understand the tragedy of the 1960s.

In 1968, Richard Nixon and George C. Wallace won 57% of the popular vote around politics rooted in a racist backlash against civil rights and an abiding disgust for young people. The shape of that defeat, the crushed hope of that tumultuous year, have dominated American politics ever since.

All of electoral politics since 1968 has centered on the desire to find a mythical white middle. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” was parsed into demographic slivers, a process we saw this year in coded terms like “hockey moms” and “hard-working Americans” and “the real America”.

It’s been about trying to find these minute fractions of a “white center”, honing in on the ever-smaller, ever more reactionary minorities. Two pieces of supposedly “common-sense” political wisdom came out of this―that this country was essentially “center-right” and that the only voters who mattered were the white voters of the mythical middle.

Schisms over race and generation have defined 40 years of politics in this country.

This, in a nutshell, is the story of the hip-hop generation. It’s the story of the rise of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment. And the sorry results are all around us.

We have the tragedies of Katrina. The hurricane simply exposed the accumulated horrors this country’s politics of abandonment have visited upon poor people of color for 40 years.

We have the biggest prison-industrial complex in the world, and an entire generation of young men and women of color behind bars in a society that no longer cares about rehabilitation, that’s about locking people up and throwing away the key.

We have an immigration system that is inhumane and out-of-date, that divides families and closes the borders even as the destinies of nations are increasingly lashed together.

We have a nation torn asunder by economic policies that have exacerbated the wealth gap and hastened an environmental collapse.

We have pre-emptive shock-doctrine wars justified by Orientalist views of the world, and a ruthless disdain for its human toll.

Folks, we have issues.

Yet amidst all of this, conservatives wanted to raise the old racial fears in this election.

They returned the election to 1968, an era when racist housing covenants had only recently been made illegal and racial intermarriage had only recently been made legal.

Of course, it was the most ridiculous kind of nostalgiaa battle for a world that was already gone. But at the Republican National Convention, I watched Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin try to hype a newly discovered breed of subhuman: the community organizer.

They blew their racist dog whistles all the way until November 4th, and not without effect. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans were silenced by the loud racist whisper campaigns, until Colin Powell stepped up to ask the right question, “So what if Obama was Muslim?” Authorities foiled at least a half-dozen white supremacist schemes to kill Obama. And when McCain began his concession speech that night by celebrating Obama’s history-making election as the first Black president, his supporters actually booed.

Conservatives all attempted to portray Obama as an unknowable Other. So maybe Obama is our first API president? He was certainly treated like a stranger from a different shore.

WELCOME THE NEW MAJORITY

And yet on November 4th, we saw past all of that.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and young people voted 2-1 to elect Barack Obama. In doing so, we became an essential part of the new majority.

This past summer, as Obama was bodysurfing at Sandy Beach in Hawai’i (which makes him the first API bodysurfing president), ABC pundit Cokie Roberts said his vacation to that “foreign” place made him seem “a little bit more exotic than he perhaps would want to come across.” But days later, new census projections were released showing that the U.S. might become majority-minority by 2042, a full eight years earlier than previously expected. The Brookings Institution followed by noting that those under 30 will reach that point in 2028.

But the new majority couldn’t wait. We showed up on November 4th, two decades early. And yes, we beat the hell out of McCain’s and Palin’s asses with good-old fashioned community organizing.

The size of the victory―365 electoral votes, 67 million votes, and historic turnout rates for young people and people of color―is resounding proof that the country is hardly “center-right”, but in fact may be “progressive-left”. It’s hard to think of a greater repudiation of the racist politics of Richard Nixon and George Wallace and the reactionary psychographics of Karl Rove and Mark Penn.

On election night, my cousin―a recent graduate of Punahou School, Barack Obama’s high school in Hawai’i―was in Accra, Ghana. She watched as American expatriates screamed and sobbed and hugged, Ghanaian boys waved an American flag, and women fell to the ground to pray. When Obama stepped to the podium in Chicago, she said, the sun rose in the African sky. It was a new day.

You helped make that day a reality.

You are the new majority once imagined and embodied by those who formed the Third World Liberation Front.
And through this historic moment, you have resoundingly entered the world stage.

“POST-RACIAL AMERICA”?

Now, a lot of people have been suggesting that we have arrived in a “post-racial America”. And I say to them, well damn, I must have missed that train stop.

The last time someone made slant-eyes at me was not so long ago. The last time someone sneered at my family and asked if they spoke English was not so long ago. These are just the small slights.

If we are in a post-racial America, why didn’t Barack Obama and John McCain want to talk about immigration? Why didn’t they want to talk about the prison-industrial complex?

These are some of the issues that progressive Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders must be ready to raise.

We were on the winning side, but we can’t surrender our principles. We have an important role to play, and we cannot shy away from our responsibility.

THE REAL QUESTION

I want to close with a cautionary tale, one I have been talking about a lot lately, and one I have raised here at UCLA before.

During the 1980s, one of our biggest political victories came when we challenged UCLA and UC Berkeley on the question of Asian admissions.

We began fighting so-called elite universities to change policies that seemed to cap the percentage of Asian Americans admitted to UCLA and Cal at 20%. We brought in the community, we brought in the state legislature. We put pressure on the University administrators until they broke.

And we won. The universities changed their policies to reflect greater cultural sensitivity. And the results are clear to this day. After the 80s, the numbers of Asian Americans at UCLA and Cal climbed sharply.

But this story does not have a happy ending

We believed that we had taught the University a lesson―that admissions is a process in which we must carefully balance social needs, with a special eye towards helping those who have been historically underserved and an understanding of what it means to shape the polity of the future

But neoconservatives were able to twist the lesson of our fight into an all-out assault on affirmative action. Several years after the admissions fight was resolved at UCLA and Cal, they marshaled the passage of Proposition 209. Asian American admits continued to climb, but UC campuses are less economically and culturally representative than they were in the 1980s

So we won the battle. But you all are continuing to fight the same war today, as forces within the university once again attempt to pit communities of color against each other. They have no care for a racially just society. It’s all just a numbers game to them

On the other hand, we must confront some very delicate questions, especially now that we constitute the de facto majority on this campus: What do we do when we win? How do we understand our needs in the context of the entire struggle for racial justice? What are our responsibilities to the whole and not just ourselves

These are the problems, I might add, that we also must now confront as part of the new majority. What do we do when we win?

This questions undergirds all the other questions we want to answer: How do we bring the troops home, reverse economic injustice and the abandonment of the impoverished, expand educational opportunity, dismantle corporate consolidation, ensure diversity of media representation, rethink immigration, establish national healthcare, colorize the green economy, abolish prisons, and begin rehabilitating our people and our country and the world

What do we do when we win

When we look back across the sweep of history, we learn this: There is no golden age, there is no dark age, within each is the other

There is always the need for change. And there is always only now. The struggle of now. What Martin Luther King Jr. once referred to in a speech calling for an end to the Vietnam War, ‘the fierce urgency of now’

We learn that no one will ride to our rescue. We will not be saved. We must save ourselves

Our work as artists, as organizers, as agents of change cannot stop now. Too much has happened. Our elders and forebears have created too much for us to leave the legacy aside.

The best way to honor our history is to continue to make it. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.”
It’s your time now. This urgency is yours now. Go out and make history.

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