Netroots Nation and White Privilege

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Right before Netroots Nation 10 began in Las Vegas, a blogging colleague mentioned she could no longer attend and put her tickets up on twitter. The cost of the tickets was more than cost of an undergraduate class at our local college (not including fees). It was also more than other similar conferences that include radical and left bloggers but do not have the same political and journalism participation as Netroots. The difference in the blogger attendance at these conferences is striking as others like AMC tend to have more female and people of color participation while Netroots has more white male formally credentialed (including members or wannabe members of government) participating. At the same time, many bloggers regardless of race or class have been attending Netroots precisely because it has become the legitimated space to network and make a name for oneself that the powers that be on the Left will take seriously. The level of attendance also means that it is a great opportunity for bloggers across the spectrum to meet up and think about what they do as political change; yet, those excluded on the basis of cost are almost always bloggers of color, especially women and currently parenting mothers, and therefore the cycle of legitimacy-illegitimacy on the basis of race, class, and gender continues.

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I raised the issue of class at Netroots on twitter with those who were able to attend and found myself inundated with private chats not only about class inequality but also its connections to race inequality at the conference. People alerted me to the fact that several panels on race issues had no people of color on them. Still others, took a solidarity stance with issues of racism and immigration while failing to acknowledge the way the identities they represented overlapped, including queer, female, blogger, etc. Other panels interrogate the Left Media and the ideas that by nature of being liberal you have the right to call yourself progressive or radical or even a change agent if your staff, on air talent, and advertising continue to promote white middle class normativity. The latter panels were met with considerable resistant on and off stage from the very media they were critiquing and many of the people at Netroots who see the conference as an entry point into that media.

As I was taking in all of these reports and matching them against video of the event I had seen over the years, twitter lit up with discussion of Mock ICE. It seems some of my favorite people where engaging in an ICE stop of white Netroots attendees for being undocumented on Indigenous land in order to raise awareness about not only AZ’s new law but also the privilege involved in being able to walk around freely in this country.

For many people praising AZ’s new Papers Please Law, the defense has been based on the idea that carrying and showing papers is not a big deal. They have argued that the law to have ID has always been on the books AZ is just enforcing it, and so documented immigrants should have no fear because they should have been carrying their information all along. Besides the many ways the law can be used to stop and harass anyone brown, that have already been discussed on this blog, the assumption that no real harm comes from carrying and showing your ID in the course of your day is based on the privilege to ignore stigma, spectacle, humiliation, and even time.

As one person stopped at the checkpoint said, “I was just going to get some lunch and they stopped me.” Imagine for a minute that you had to go to an important business meeting and you got stopped by ICE for no other reason than “looking like an undocumented person” and all of the people you were going to meet for the first time passed you on the street being shaken down by the police. Do you think you would be able to make that business deal? Do you think you would have a job to go back to? What if you were going to a lunch with friends and all of the restaurant patrons could see you being shaken down by the police from the big windows in the front of the restaurant? Do you think the restaurant would let you in and seat you? Or that you could eat in peace afterward?

When faced with having to stop and show paperwork, many of the Netroots attendees happily complied with the checkpoint. Some did so because they have the privilege of respecting policing authority and assuming it is in their best interest and others understood or came to understand the awareness action of which they were ultimately a part. Others, especially white male participants with actual journalism or government credentials felt differently (scroll to 59 seconds to avoid video of them setting up):

Not only did they refuse to participate, but as you can see from the video above, some even threatened to call the police. Failing to recognize the irony of the situation he was in, one white male participant not only said he would call the police but added that they would then ask for ID, twisting the word “you” at his would be Latino Mock ICE agent in ways that clearly implied “you look like an ‘illegal alien’ and I hope you get dragged in.”

Why so much vehemence at such a “progressive” conference?

I find myself going back to the issue of cost and credentialing. Netroots Nation is cost prohibitive. That means that many radical and progressive activists, particularly women and people of color, cannot attend. This year was likely more multicultural just based on its location in Las Vegas but other years it has not only included a huge attendees fee, and travel fees if you are not local, but also been in cities that are predominantly white and upper class making travel costs even higher for people outside that demographic. At the same time, the Democratic Party and established media have given more and more credence to the event and the people who attend it, including packing some panels with paid bloggers. No similar attention has been given to other conferences and subsequently to the bloggers who have made a name for themselves there. The divides represent a reproduction of pre-existing inequity in the media, the Left, and political power in this country. Beginning with class constraints that transform into racial and gender ones, ie the intersection of the three, this conference that was envisioned as progressive space, and no doubt included many progressive ideas and work, continues the fundamental flaws that plague most mainstream social change in the U.S. In other words, despite claiming progressive ideas, on many levels Netroots represents an idea that started with unquestioned class assumptions which manifest along gender and race lines. These assumptions reproduce inequality on the basis of legitimacy afforded attendees who are overwhelmingly middle class, white, and male over those who cannot attend or due to the constraints on attendance appear to be in the minority.

It seems to me that we, people on the Left, have been doing the same thing for too long while expecting and even congratulating ourselves on things being different. We make minor steps forward in the representation of a handful of women (usually also white) or people of color (usually men) and that is supposed to make up for the fact that mostly things stay exactly the same on both sides of the political divide. Fanon published in the 1950s and 60s. Wollstonecraft in 1792. And yet here we are, claiming social justice when our basic premises remain the same. Take a look at that second video again and then ask yourself what unacknowledged investments you have made and whether or not you have masked them with the words “radical” “progressive” or “liberal.” Just because you recycle doesn’t mean that you have not envisioned a world in which brown people take out the bins.