By David Rovics
December 12th, 2020
How NPR Divides and Conquers
is the result when a media outlet does a new story every day about the
history of racism in the US, without ever mentioning the history of the
multiracial radical labor movement whose white and BIPOC organizers were
lynched for fighting for equality and freedom?
I listen to NPR a lot. I’m not going to go into all the reasons I do this, but there are many, and they are contradictory. Generally it’s a combination of a desire to know what’s going on from a news source that has actual reporters on the ground, and wanting to know how the liberal elite is spinning everything. Depending on the stories they’re covering, my nickname for the news outlet changes — Nationalist Petroleum Radio, Nationalist Pentagon Radio, Nationalist Privilege Radio. The nice young, intersectional crowd of reporters working for NPR did not necessarily sign up to be part of the liberal elite, nor do they know they are part of any elite, nor are they necessarily even being paid very well, even! But that’s the role they unwittingly play, along with most of their guests.
you may be wondering, how can you unwittingly be part of a liberal
elite, when you’re not even necessarily rich, white, or any of those
traditional liberal elite things? Simple: you do it by ignoring the
elephant in the living room.
It’s an easy elephant to ignore, for a variety of reasons. Your editors know it’s there — they’ve been around the block, they know what they’re doing and who they’re working for. Everybody else generally ignores it, either because they don’t see it there with any clarity, or they’re not really given a chance to mention it within their story’s allotted sixty seconds, or because at every turn, growing up in the US or elsewhere, they have been told it’s not about the elephant, it’s about something else. The favorite standbys for a long time now? Race, gender, and sexuality.
I’m not now going to name any names, because this isn’t about specific hosts or guests. Nor do I want to pick an argument with an author who was being interviewed recently whose book I have not read. I understand how little time they have, and how little can be said within the confines of such an interview. And it’s not about the interview or the individual, but the overall message communicated by both the format, which issues are often addressed and which aren’t, and the preponderance of privileged people who tend to be involved with mainstream media.
The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot without being defined, so I just thought I’d join in. But no, let me define it a little bit more here. Privileged people — who are unaware of their privilege, which is part of the deal with privilege generally — don’t tend to see people who aren’t privileged. The non-privileged majority are invisible, unless they are normative, in which case they are visible. That is, Black men are supposed to be hanging around on the street corner wearing a hoodie, hands in their bulging pockets, looking like they’re up to something illegal. So when we see a Black man acting like that, we might manage not to block out that image. When we see white guys engaging in exactly the same behavior, we’re more likely either not to see the same behaviors the same way, or, even more likely, we just don’t see the person at all.
This is because white poverty is institutionally invisible. Here in Portland, it just doesn’t fit any of the usual narratives. Oregon was founded as a white homeland, with Portland as its capital city. The land was given away to white settlers, almost exclusively barring people of color from owning land. Exclusion laws were on the books for decades afterwards, with both formal and informal forms of institutional racism rife to this day. That’s all very true, and some aspect of this racist history is now mentioned daily on NPR, as it should be.
Portland was for a long time also one of the main bases of operation for a radical labor union that was explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist and actively welcomed women and people of color. The union still exists, and it’s called the Industrial Workers of the World. You will never hear this union or this union’s radical and transformational local history discussed on NPR. You will not hear about the lynchings of the white union organizers. But you will hear about the lynchings of the Black ones now, occasionally. One lynching fits the racial narrative, the other doesn’t, and is best ignored, as with labor history generally. Is this absence of labor history on NPR — and PBS — intentional? You can ask Elsa Rassbach, one of the few directors who managed to address labor history on PBS, before giving up on further efforts and moving to Berlin. Yes, it’s very intentional.
Given the history of exclusion and extreme racism, why, even after the Vanport flood destroyed the biggest Black community in Portland, even with a vicious police force targeting people of color from before Oregon became a state right up to the present moment, even with all kinds of formal and informal forms of discrimination, did Portland’s Black population continue to grow throughout the latter half of the twentieth century?
The answer is pretty simple. There were jobs here, to some extent. That’s why Portland developed a Black neighborhood in the first place. That’s why most cities did. Not just a Black population, but a population, period. This is mainly why people move to cities, whether they suck to live in or not.
And far more importantly, for the purposes of the point I’m making here, why has Portland lost more than half of its Black population between 2000 and 2010 — and many more since then? Has Portland become a more racist place now than it was in the 1980’s? If you talk to any person of color who lived in Portland in the 1980’s, I doubt you will find one who will say that it was a great place to live back then.
So, what happened? What explains this flight of the Black population?
I’m hoping you already know the answer, but if you don’t, you can be forgiven, I suppose, if your main source of news is NPR.
It’s called capitalism.
Portland has lost most of its Black population for the same reason that it has, invisibly, lost most of its working class population generally, that being mostly its white working class population: because there is no real rent control, we are all subject to the whims of the real estate marketplace and the oligarchs investing their Russian and Norwegian and Texas oil money into the profitable US property and rental markets.
I have seen the Class C apartment complex I have lived in here in Portland since 2007 completely transform, from a place that housed mainly white, Asian and Latinx families, to a place that mainly houses young white people, living together in apartments where each resident is an income-earner, paying their rent, the only way many people can afford to live in cities like Portland anymore, with the multi-generational families forced out.
To the privileged NPR guests lecturing their listeners about unconscious bias and rarely-defined forms of privilege day in and day out, these young people with their parents’ Priuses and their Black Lives Matter bumper stickers are the white people. The rest are invisible. The fact that most of the tent-dwellers on the sidewalks are white men is an inconvenient reality best ignored, or referred to in passing as “white poverty” or the “white poor,” as if this group of people is a tiny, insignificant little segment of the population that we can basically sweep under the rug.
White people make up a bit more than half of this country’s population and are the biggest group of people living in poverty as well. These kids in their Priuses are not representative either of the population as a whole, or of the white population. The average Black family can’t afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in Portland. While the average white family is in a better position to afford the rent in this city, most of them would opt to leave the city and go somewhere where their money goes a lot further in terms of a spacious place to live, if they have any options. And whether white or Black, that’s what they are doing. As they leave, the liberal elite increasingly populates the city, turning it into a playground for the rich, like San Francisco, Seattle and New York have largely become. Which are the white people they are generally referring to when they talk about the displacement of Black Portlanders (or San Franciscans, or Oaklanders, or New Yorkers, etc.) on NPR.
And yes, those rich people are mostly white. But to say that these people spending $500,000 on a house in north Portland, displacing the Black families that lived there, and putting Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns represent the white population of the country is like saying that the Cosby family represents the Black population.
What is making them leave is the fact that they can’t afford to live here. What is making them not be able to afford to live here certainly has nothing to do with the invisible white working class families who are also fleeing the city they grew up in in droves, who aren’t even worth mentioning on NPR, almost ever. Even the privileged people coming in from New York and San Francisco to buy up houses in Portland, even this set isn’t necessarily responsible for causing the chaos and devastation of all of this massive displacement of the white and Black working class of this city. Because even these yuppie house-flippers didn’t necessarily create this system. They don’t even necessarily believe in it. They’re just playing along with the way the system works, with what makes money, doing what we’re all supposed to do in this society, and being “successful.”
Of course, on the upper end of privilege, with the corporations who do the lion’s share of the house-flipping and profit the most from the housing crisis, it’s another matter entirely. These corporations and their lobbying arms actually created this crisis, that being the housing crisis, and more broadly, the crisis that unregulated capitalism represents, on so many different levels, from the cost of housing to the minimum wage to workplace safety to environmental destruction.
They created this crisis because they run the country. The “they” I’m talking about are the capitalist elite. The system they are running is called capitalism, specifically a corrupt and unregulated (or wrongly-regulated) form of capitalism. This is why Portland is getting whiter. This is why gentrification is happening. This is why the working class white and Black populations and the artists and so many other people left or are leaving this city. The corporate landlord lobby. The capitalist elite. That’s the elephant we need to address here.
And we will be, regardless of whether NPR ever does this in any serious or systematic way. Capitalism itself is making sure of that, by giving us no other options. But the sooner we can stop over-emphasizing the importance of microaggressions and unconscious bias and stop talking so much about the racial and gender diversity of Biden’s cabinet full of privileged corporate stooges, and talk about the fact that they are a bunch of privileged corporate stooges, the better. If Black lives really matter, that is, and it’s not all just about appearances. And by the same token, the sooner we stop pretending that the average white person is this country, or even in Portland, is possibly represented by the privileged elite that can afford to spend $500,000 on a house, the better.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs