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Rinku Sen – towards racial justice

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center, a think tank that popularizes racial justice ideas and fights for them, tells us that she wasn’t always a professional person of color. (She refers to Pat Buchanan as a “professional white person”.) “I didn’t always identify with the brown-skinned people around me.” Her family came to the US from India when she was 5 years old. She was the only immigrant kid in schools, in her neighborhood and classes. “I spent all my time figuring out how to be an American – watching hours and hours of TV a day… I am living proof that it’s okay to park your kids in front of the TV.”

Rinku Sen, photo by Kris Krüg

She watched the Brady Bunch and begged her mother to feed us hot dogs every night. Despite the fact that speaking English was banned in her house, she speaks with absolutely no accent. The lesson she received, despite her parents ban on speaking English, was that only white people got to be Americans… and she got this lesson from American TV.

Rinku tells us that she was so assimilated, she decided to skip her university’s special orientation for people of color. When racial tensions and rallies erupted around the beating up of a black student, she avoided the subject. Finally, Yuko and Valerie, two friends who are students of color, told her, “You’re a woman now, and a person of color – it’s time to grow up and go to the rally.”

When she went, she says, “for the first time, I felt like I was home.” She realized that “America is about all these different people, freaks like me, trying to make a better place – a campus, a city, a country.” She discovered that organizing could lead to huge changes: a third world center on campus, a dusk to dawn shuttle for everyone, but oriented towards women’s safety.

The experience led her to focus on organizing, particularly around women’s issues, healthcare, and housing. She assumed – correctly – that this was a long-term struggle. But “lo and behold, in 2007, we faced a very different discussion about race,” a discussion about post-racial society that was very encouraging, and very scary.

The good news about “postracial America” is that people don’t actually want to be racist, and don’t want to tolerate huge disparities. That’s great, but we haven’t moved beyond race. The negative is that post-racialism is based on a very limited definition of racism – racism as individual, intentional and explicit. That might have been true in the past, but racism is now structural.

Diversity, she argues, is not the same as racial justice. Diversity suggests that if you get the right people into the room, the intentions will be different and institutions will work differently. It’s just not true. Philanthropy has become more diverse in the past forty years, but private philanthropic dollars going to black communities totals only 0.3%. Diversity hasn’t led to increased racial equity in the distribution of funds.

What we need instead is an explicit and structural approach that leads to equity. In turn, we’ll discover that racial justice improves everyone’s life.

She tells us about Thekat Mamadou (apologies if this is wrong), a worker from Morocco who travelled first to Saudi Arabia and later to Florida looking for opportunity. Since he came to Florida with the Saudi Royal family, he arrived without proper documents. He found work as a waiter in fancy French restaurants, because he’s charming, has great French and is an excellent waiter. And eventually, he ended up at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, where he worked for years and became a union leader.

On 9/11, he lost 73 colleagues and friends, and his happy-go-lucky immigrant life changed. He was “shocked to find people treating him as if he’d had something to do with the attacks – grieving and shocked that his name, skin and faith make him such a target,” for anger and hatred.

So Mamadou began focusing on helping other immigrants weather the post-9/11 environment. He founded the Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York, an organization that systematically focused on righting problems around unpaid wages, dangerous conditions, and an unfair racial hierarchy in restaurants. In many restaurants, only white men work in front of house jobs, while immigrants of color work in the back, making less than half as much money. The organization has a particular style, Rinku tells us: “I like to call it ‘kicking the asses of rogue employers from one end of the city to the other.'”

A white waitress, Jennifer Massia, was working at an expensive restaurant, the Red-Eye Grill in Lincoln Center. She was blue collar, had worked in restaurants since she was 17, and was working her way through Columbia University. She realized that her tips were being stolen by the managers through a process called “tipping the house”, which is illegal.

So she reached out to ROC-NY. She brought twenty colleagues, all white, to meet with ROC – it didn’t occur to her to reach out to the bussers, who also share that tip pool, and are poorer people of color. ROC told her, “We can help you, but you have to reach out to the back of the house as well.”

Most of the waiters don’t want to do it – they fooled themselves that there are no issues at the back of the house. But the organization insisted. And the back of house staff had a discussion about whether they should join a campaign started by the white waiters.

It was an incredibly successful campaign. Over 3 years, they received $5 million in back wages and protection against retaliatory firings. “If struggling white people like Jennifer Massia hadn’t had ROC, no other organization would have helped them.” And the cooperation between the front and back of the house helped demonstrate that “racial justice is at the core of a compassionate, inclusive, effective society.”

Rinku returns to her childhood to close: “I never wanted to go back to being 13 years old and having none of the white girls come to my party.” We need to be explicit and structural about the ways racism works around us and create the society we all want to live in.