We make the road by walking: Part III – Undoing Privilege

Mount Vernon, WA – I first met jim justice, president of the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council an organization supporting the reform lobby, local agriculture and farmworkers with strong ties to growers, immigration attorneys and Fundamentalist Christian churches in the Skagit Valley, on the picket line at Labor Camp 2 during the second farmworker strike at Sakuma Bros. Farms.

An older white woman, who just happened to be speaking to a news reporter as I was summoned by the farm workers to interpret. My first question was to ask, “who are you?” and my second question was, “why are you speaking to the reporters?”

When she responded I recognized her name because, as part of the media team, we had been managing what we believed at the time to be misinformation that was attributed to her regarding the farm worker strike.

On July 24, 2013 jim justice had sent an e-mail to the Skagit Valley community offering “another perspective” on the Sakuma work stoppage. Where she used quotes from Seth Holmes monograph, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies (2013) to defend Sakuma Bros. Farms. She announced a negotiation meeting scheduled by, “Respected local religious leaders, with experience in Hispanic ministry, who have participated in negotiations in the past” that was to take place the next day.

I informed the reporter that jim justice did not speak for the farm workers and that I also could not speak for the farm workers, but that I would be more than happy to interpret. As jim justice began to protest, she was quickly scooped away by a member of the farm worker support team and I led the reporter and cameraman to the picket line where the farm workers shared their reasons for striking.

I met Bob Ekblad shortly after, at the negotiation meeting that culminated the second strike at Sakuma Bros. Farm. A middle aged white man, he is the co-founder and director of Tierra Nueva, an eucumenical ministry based in Burlington. At the negotiation, a team of clergy and lay people had been assembled upon the request of the Sakuma executives.

Just before I was asked to leave, Ryan Sakuma made a statement that he did not consider Rosalinda Guillen and Angelica Villa to be “objective” observers, that he would prefer if they also left. The farm worker negotiation committee defined their role as witnesses to the process and that they had been present since the beginning. The Sakumas claimed that this team of church members were invited to be there as “objective” observers, at which point an alliance between the clergy and growers became clear.

I first met Sarah Bishop in Seattle. A young white woman, a seasoned organizer, freshly hired by One America (http://weareoneamerica.org), and assigned to the Skagit Valley. She had worked for a Central American justice organization, we struck up a friendship based on our commonalities, but almost immediately after finding out that I had worked with Community to Community Development, she asked me if I knew of any conflict between the two organizations. I didn’t, but she informed me of what she described as a turf battle.

I ignored it until at a later date she pressed for more information about C2C executive director Rosalinda Guillen, I informed her that I would not be placed in the position of an informant. I never heard from her again until there was an incident with labor consultant Ermelindo Escobedo, the farmworkers confused her for a labor consultant because she and her team had been visiting the labor camp cabin to cabin asking for their signatures in the same manner as Escobedo, who was hired to break the strike.

21st CENTURY RACISM: A PARADIGM SHIFT

A paradigm shift has occured when it comes to race in the United States. This shift corresponds with the demographic shift that has been occurring over the last 80 years in the United States.

In Latin America the racial project is based on Mestizaje, Blanqueamiento, and Indigenismo. Mestizaje is the legitimized racial category in most Latin American countries, an ideology that holds that everyone is mixed race, which erases difference. Blanqueamiento (literally whitening) is linked to mestizaje in that the reason for racial mixing should be to whiten the race, a value that reinforces white supremacy.

The discourse of the color-line is what grounds the racial project in the United States, which is based upon the construction of the other. W.E.B. DuBois (1986) writes, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—The relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (16). This color-line, however has evolved over the long 20th century to be much more than black and white.

Racism therefore requires a more complex definition and understanding. Racism, as defined by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007), “is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (28). This flexible definition takes into account and functions in both varieties of racial domination described above and it describes the context under which harassment is encouraged by both the racial state and U.S. rural society.

THE LANGUAGE OF 21ST CENTURY RACISM: THE COLORBLIND

A useful tool for understanding the rhetoric of colorblind racism would be to look at Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s dissection of the language used by college age populations in his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Presistance of Racial Inequality in the United States (2003).

In this book Bonilla-Silva identifies four central frames of white-supremacist race talk abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism and minimization of racism.

ABSTRACT LIBERALISM

According to Bonilla-Silva, “The frame of abstract liberalism involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g., “equal opportunity,” the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (e.g., choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters.”(Bonilla-Silva, 28) Abstract liberalism is also the location where appeals to the fairness of the state, to meritocracy, and freedom are made in support of repressive measures against those targeted as “enemy”. At the same time it is abstract liberalism that allows for the idea of “reverse-racism”.

“White privilege is when your words legitimate violence and abuse against people of color bodies, and we are cast as aggressors for fighting back.” –Teju Cole

NATURALIZATION

The second frame, naturalization, “allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences.”(Bonilla-Silva, 28) It is in this context that segregation is explained as a natural as cat’s and dog’s or oil and water.

“White privilege is when your words legitimate violence and abuse against people of color bodies, and we are cast as aggressors for fighting back.” –Teju Cole

CULTURAL RACISM

The third frame of cultural racism, “relies on culturally based arguments such as, ‘Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ or ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society.” (Bonilla-Silva, 28) Rather than hold neoliberalism accountable for the status of the majority of the world, their exploited positions are explained as a cultural trait that is self-perpetuated.

“White privilege is when you think you can set a timeline for how, where, and when people should fight for themselves and their communities.” –Teju Cole

MINIMIZATION OF RACISM

The last frame explained by Bonilla-Silva is the minimization of racism, “a frame that suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances (‘it’s better now than in the past’ or ‘There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there’)” (Bonilla-Silva, 29) This frame allows for acts of racial violence perpetrated by police, the military, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and grassroots white supremacist vigilante activist groups to be dismissed, for the links between these acts and their funders to be rendered irrelevant, and for those struggling to hold them accountable to be accused of, “being ‘hypersensitive,’ of using race as an ‘excuse,’ or of ‘playing the race card.’”(Bonilla-Silva, 29)

“White privilege is when you are white and tell me that it isn’t about race.” –Teju Cole

It is within the above context that the opening narratives begin to become a bit more troubling as we move from the individual level onto the organizational level of analysis we begin to see the way that what appear to be individual, perhaps unintentional, discretions of white privilege: misinformation, charity, and organizational faux pas take on the forms of structural violence in support of white supremacy: disinformation, the white savior complex, and sabotage.

DISINFORMATION

This series, We Make the Road by Walking began as a retort against much of the disinformation that was being advanced in favor of Sakuma Bros. Farms and against Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Before the second strike, the grower hired Precision Public Relations to handle it’s media campaign. John Segale, the owner of the consulting firm came out as a public spokesperson for Sakuma Bros. Farms around the same time that a public smear campaign began against Rosalinda Guillen by community members affiliated with the Reform lobby (One America), local growers (labor consultants), and the religious right at a Skagit Valley Community Forum.

The first piece of disinformation presented by Segale’s consulting firm was to assure the public that the labor dispute was over, that it was a cultural misunderstanding, and that the public should support local farmers. He did so by explaining the complex piece rate determination process as a “bell-curve” suggesting that most farmworkers fared well under this system in an article titled “Labor situation eases at berry farm” in Capitol Press published on July 27, 2013.

The second disinformation that was presented on behalf of the firm, was not directly tied to Precision Public Relations, though it had the company line. In a Skagit Valley Herald article, The symptom of a larger issue Bob Ekblad and Seth Holmes, a white physician and anthropologist who conducted field research in the Skagit Valley in the early 2000s and was introduced to the Sakumas by his friend who was a local pastor at the Christian church that the Sakumas attend, were cited as experts. In this article:

  • Seth Holmes argued that “some of what’s going on is likely not due to the farm owners” taking responsibility for the labor dispute away from the corporation.

  • Bob Ekblad argued that the farmworkers were instead primarily threatened by H-2A guest workers.

  • Jerry Nelson, a local farmer explained how many jobs would be lost if Sakuma Bros. Farms was forced out of business [for paying better wages]

  • Bob Ekblad reduced the entire conflict to a cultural misunderstanding and lack of communication, reducing the problem to “migrant farmworker culture” which was out of the hands of the farmer.

  • WHITE SAVIOR COMPLEX

    According to Debra Leigh, the White Savior Complex “is a racist, paternalistic assumption that well meaning white people know what’s best for people of color. Decisions, by white people, are made on behalf of people of color, as though they were incapable of making their own”(2). She continues, “This is another version of “blame the victim” and white is right. It places the problems at the feet of people of color and the only “appropriate” solutions with white people. Once more the power of self-determination is taken away from people of color. Regardless of motive, it is still about white control”(ibid).

    Jamila King, a writer for Colorlines Magazine argues that one of the biggest problems with the white savior complex is that in centering whiteness it excises people of color from the narrative as fully capable agents. She provided evidence that in order to do so, most of media campaigns guided by the White Savior Complex, such as KONY 2012, necessarily simplify the complex stories of the many as voiceless and hopeless, depending upon deeply entrenched racial stereotypes to do so. Furthermore, she points out that the white savior complex has a tendency to call in the cavalry, or state agents of oppression like the police or military to act on behalf of said community which is linked to the 19th century missionary complex. She ends by asking the reader to follow the money, “the white savior complex is not just a familiar narrative—it’s a lucrative one.

    Indeed, Bob Ekblad has made a career publishing books based on this formula. It would be very telling to examine the income of the reform lobby, the growers and christian right and to see where they coincide.

    SABOTAGE

    Any organization, be it large or small, can provoke the scrutiny of the state. Perhaps your organization poses a large threat, or maybe you’re small now but one day you’ll grow up and be too big to rein in. The state usually opts to kill the movement before it grows.

    And informants and provocateurs are the state’s hired gunmen. Government agencies pick people that no one will notice. Often it’s impossible to prove that they’re informants because they appear to be completely dedicated to social justice. They establish intimate relationships with activists, becoming friends and lovers, often serving in leadership roles in organizations. (Morris 2010)

    On August 30, 2013, an e-mail was sent by jim justice to members of the Skagit Valley community on behalf of the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council. The subject heading read “call for peacekeepers”. In the e-mail she claimed that members of the United Farm Workers were planning to come by the busload to the labor camp to show solidarity with Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

    She claimed, “Farm workers who are not part of this committee have expressed fear that violence may break out, and they fear for their own safety and that of their families. Some of those workers live in the migrant camps and some live in town.” Which she followed with, “It is unclear to us if that violence would be between workers wishing to go to work and workers who are protesting, or between outside supporters and Sakuma staff or security. In either case the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council supports a peaceful resolution to this dispute and opposes violent tactics by any party.” She ended the message with a call for volunteer peacekeepers, whom she warned “Please note that going in as a peacekeeper could be tense and there is the possibility you could be hurt.”

    The weekend came and went, no buses, and no one from the UFW or any other group came to the labor camp. However, this act of sabotage to the relationships that Familias Unidas por la Justicia has to their community and to the solidarity community is not a matter to be taken lightly. Community leaders including Rosalinda Guillen responded quickly and oddly were met with a response from the vice president of the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council, retired Evangelical reverend Josefina Beecher who opened her e-mail with, “I am glad to hear from Rosalinda that there is not going to be any outside disruptive action.” Rev. Beecher later apologized for the disinformation sent out by jim justice,

    I believe we were in error to say the UFW would be sending people here. They would have a logical interest but I am unaware of any workers mentioning them by name. We apologize for any implication that the UFW would foment violence. We know that they adhere to non-violent strategies and we honor their historic work for justice for farmworkers and their important voice at the immigration reform table.

    She framed what appeared at first to be a sincere apology with the following disclaimer, “Unlike an alarm sent out early in this dispute which mistakenly said that workers were being forcibly evicted from Campo 2 housing, this SIRC email was not sent out indiscriminately.” Referring to reports that Familas Unidas por la Justicia’s negotiation committee president Ramon Torres had given the media based on a breakdown of communication in the negotiations when Ryan Sakuma carelessly told the farmworker committee that if they didn’t like their wages they could leave, the crisis that spurred the second strike of the summer.

    Rev. Beecher ends the e-mail asserting that, “The Skagit Immigrant Rights Council will continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform” confirming that this organization is indeed a front organization by the reform lobby, the growers, and religious right of the region.

    FOLLOW THE MONEY

    It is important to backtrack at this point and understand the relationship of this front organziation to this specific grower, Sakuma Bros. Farm. In a tight knit rural society such as the Skagit Valley, there is bound to be a tremendous amount of overlap in regards to the community.

    In his monograph, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies” (2013), Seth Holmes confesses that he was turned on to Oaxaca-origin migrant farm workers in the Skagit Valley by a childhood friend who, “had become the pastor of a church attended by the president of one of the larger farms in the region”(5). Holmes continued, “She helped me get permission from the farm’s president to live and work on the berry farm”(ibid). Holmes here demonstrates the tight bonds between local churches and growers.

    This type of closeness in rural society allows for a practice known as astroturfing to proliferate, where a biased message is made to to seem “objective” by coming from a seemingly credible “grassroots” source.

    This situation of an alliance between entities involved in policy (reform lobby), industrialized agriculture (growers), and religious (local churches) endeavors is far from local.

    NET SALES

  • $6,100,000.00, Sakuma Brothers Holding Company (berries)

  • $3,500,000.00, Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. (nursery)

  • $11,000,000.00, Sakuma Bros. Processing

  • $150,000.00, Precision Public Relations

  • $110,000.00, Tierra Nueva (aka Skagit Hispanic Ministries)

  • $89,000.00, Washington Farm Labor Association

  • $54,000.00, Skagit Immigrant Rights Council

  • Source: Global Duns Market Identifiers, July 5, 2013 Copyright 2011 Dun & Bradstreet, Inc.

    THE WASHINGTON COMPACT

    According to their website, “The Washington Compact is a coalition of business, faith, and law enforcement leaders who have pledged support for a set of broad principles for reforming the country’s broken immigration system.”

    The Washington Compact is an agreement forged by One America, the Washington Grower’s League, and the Association of Washington Businesses to push strongly for Senate bill S744 that, according to The Dignity Campaign is one that “will hold millions in an underclass, vulnerable to exploitation and relegated to the ranks of the working poor, with no access to basic services. Millions will have no hope of receiving permanent legal status, let alone citizenship.” (response to senate bill s 744)

    The Dignity Campaign holds that the bill is “the product of corporate America, which wants to hold down the cost of labor, especially in high tech, the hotel and restaurant industry, construction, and the food growing and processing industry. Massive enforcement creates money-making opportunities through continued detention and constructing more border walls, which we all already know will not stop the flow of migration.”(ibid)

    This type of coalition of policy oriented non-governmental organizations, capitalists, law enforcement and the Christian right also exists on a national scale, for example Bible’s, Badges & Business for Immigration Reform.

    The idea that growers, business leaders, law enforcement officers, conservative Christian leaders, and policy reformers will lead the way towards the salvation of immigrant farmworkers is a blatant form of racism, in particular when, due to closer examination of the legislation at hand, S 744, the cost far outweighs the benefits to immigrant farmworkers.

    LOCAL WASHINGTON COMPACT SUPPORTERS

  • $5,764,881.00, Association of Washington Business

  • $944,191.00, Washington Grower’s League

  • $120,000.00, One America (aka Hate Free Zone Washington)

  • $167,729.00, Whatcom Farm Friends

  • Source: Global Duns Market Identifiers, July 5, 2013 Copyright 2011 Dun & Bradstreet, Inc.

    Following the money we have a long road ahead in order to undo privilege. Here capitalism and white supremacy join forces to break the fabric of our community.

    Our community is what is at stake.

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