Tiny Talk - Building a Just, Multiracial Democracy
with Dennis Chin of Race Forward
This Tiny Talk was given at the first EmbraceRace Early Childhood Summit on December 3, 2022. Watch more of the Summit and find out more about the contributors here. The transcript of this talk follows.
Christina Rucinski, EmbraceRace: All right, now we are so excited to begin with our first official speaker of the day. Dennis Chin is the Vice President of Narrative Arts and Culture at Race Forward. Dennis serves as an organizational trainer and presenter specializing in the basics of racial inequity and communicating effectively about structural racial inequity. Dennis is the former co-chair of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York, and was awarded the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliances Community Catalyst Award in 2015. He's also the current co-chair of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, an organization that builds grassroots community power across working class Asian immigrants and youth in New York City. Dennis' talk today is sponsored by the Massachusetts Association for Infant Mental Health and is titled, "Building a Just Multiracial Democracy". Dennis, please take it away.
Dennis Chin: Thank you so much, Christina. Thank you so much, Andrea. Hi everyone. Good afternoon. Good morning. My name is Dennis Chin. I use he/him/his pronouns, and I'm coming to you from Queens, New York, which is occupied Canarsie land. Thank you for having me today.
I want to start my talk with a personal story. I'm the son of immigrants from Hong Kong, born and raised in New Jersey, and this is my dad and his family. My dad is the one all the way to the right in blue. And this picture was taken when his family was reunited in Hong Kong after the family was separated after the invasion of China by Japan and the subsequent communist revolution. So this whole family, they decided to move West in the 70s. My dad, specifically to America, and then the rest in Canada. And my dad is the youngest, so I thought he had something to prove to his older brothers, and I didn't learn until later that he wouldn't be here in the United States without a key piece of legislation, the 1965 Immigration Act. This act allowed immigrants like my dad who had a medical degree to come. And I didn't learn until later that one of the reasons for the 1965 Immigration Acts passage was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This act provided the moral and legal underpinning for the 1965 Immigration Act. And so I share this fact because my being here is connected to the struggle of black people for freedom in this country.
So this is me in those tiny pink shorts, and this is our home in the suburbs of New Jersey, a town called Neshanic Station. And so we lived the so-called American Dream. My dad had a steady job as a doctor for the state of New Jersey, and because of that job, he was able to get a low interest loan to buy that house in those suburbs that you see right here in this picture. This house in many ways is a symbol of that so-called American Dream. This new neighborhood, Neshanic Station, it was majority White, had strong public schools, I'm a public school student all the way through college. It had a strong public library system and lots of free or low cost enrichment activities.
I share these details because it's these opportunities and these public goods that catalyzed my success. And it wasn't until later that I realized that the things that catalyzed my success were not available to everyone because of systemic racism. Our country has consistently put up barriers against communities of color, particularly black, Latinx, indigenous, and many Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities to thrive. Whether it is housing discrimination, job discrimination, food discrimination, whether it's explicit or not. I learned that all of this were vestiges of a long, bloody history rooted in an ideology of white supremacy and learning about this was an aha moment for me.
It was a hallmark of unfairness, and I knew what that felt like in my bones, unfairness, isolation, because that little kid that you saw on that previous slide, he grew up knowing that he was gay, that he was different than the majority of his peers in the suburbs. It is that unfairness that drove me to this work. And it was learning about this history in and outside of the public school system and doing something about it that helped me heal and find my own purpose. I always say that this work made me a human, and so my purpose is to use the advantages I did have to help build a more just multiracial democracy, a democracy in which equity is centered, understood, and felt as a benefit for all of us. And I also share this story because it also makes visible the narratives that will help power a more just future.
And so what is that future? At Race Forward we are a multiracial racial justice organization. We imagine a just multiracial democracy, free from oppression and exploitation in which all people, including people of color, thrive with power and purpose. And so in order to achieve this vision, which is bigger than any one individual or any one organization, we need an enduring majority working towards equity, including racial equity. And that enduring majority means building what we call a bigger we. That recognizes that each one of us, our families, our communities, are interconnected despite craven attempts to divide us for political gain, a bigger we that recognizes that all of us have a stake in addressing systems that cause harm, including systemic racism.
And I share my story because it's not one you typically hear. It's not a mythical bootstrap story. It's a story that reveals systems, by which I mean the policies and institutions that govern our lives and how they determine life outcomes, often inequitably. It also reveals the healing and abundance possible when we recognize our interconnectedness, we choose solidarity with communities of color and other oppressed communities fighting for freedom. The possibility when we invest in and make equitable public systems that help us all thrive. And so we need to tell more of these stories and we need to couch them in an honest, accurate understanding of history, precisely the history that some politicians have been attempting to censor and learning about how that history shapes our present. We can move on to these lessons from histories, and I'm just going to share a snippet of it.
At Race Forward, we heed the words of the Reverend Dr. William Barber who says that we are in the midst of a third reconstruction. The first reconstruction was at the end of the Civil War, after slavery was abolished. There were collective gains from that first reconstruction that still reverberate, like equal protection and natural born citizenship. There was a backlash to this reconstruction that led to the era of Jim Crow. That second reconstruction that you see on the slide, this was the Civil Rights Movement, an era in which black people fought for formal equality under the law, resulting in the Civil Rights Act, which I talked about earlier, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, all key pieces of legislation that not only helped people of color, but other historically oppressed groups. There was a backlash moment to this reconstruction as well, in the form of mass incarceration and the privatization of public systems.
And now we're at a third reconstruction, approximately 60 years from the second and 120 years from the first when ideas about equity including racial equity, have finally arrived at our institutions. And this is a key piece to advancing a just multiracial democracy. We're here because of the movement for black lives, which after the murders of George Floyd, Ahmed Arbery, Brianna Taylor and more in 2020 helped a critical mass of people in this country come to a greater understanding of the impact of race and racism.
And only three weeks passed since the biggest mobilization for black lives in this country, when we saw the beginnings of a coordinated backlash against this third reconstruction. Next slide, please. So three weeks after the uprisings, Chris Rufo, then a fellow at the Manhattan Institute launched a highly coordinated and resourced culture war, as we call it on critical race theory, which Andrew talked about. And this year we've seen that attack expand to encompass gender ideology and "wokeness in general." And I'm not going to talk at length about how this is manifested. You've probably seen this in your local school districts. So for us in this backlash moment, we must understand that powerful interests have been capitalizing. They use this as a strategy by making politics about identity and cultural erasure. So what do I mean by that? Instead of focusing on policy solutions for let's say, rural underinvestment, the strategy is to simply convince rural people that the other is your enemy.
Rather than focus on the underfunding of schools in general or making them more equitable, you focus on critical race theory and trans kids. Rather than focus on access to healthcare, we focus on whether immigrants can get care. So what's the purpose of this division? I said it was a strategy. First, to roll back the progress we've made on equity as a country, which as I said, is necessary if we are to become a just multiracial democracy. And I know many of you on this call, you have been embarking on your understanding of these concepts. And for us, we must hold steady that equity is central, if we are to improve outcomes for everyday people. When we improve outcomes for those that have been historically oppressed and present day oppressed by policies and institutions, we create a stronger society for everyone. And so in chilling this work, they cast us, those of us who believe in equity and justice as divisive.
What else? What else are they doing to consolidate power amongst the few? At Race Forward, we've tracked where these cultural war attacks on learning about race, learning about gender, sexual orientation has been happening. And it's mostly in suburban and rural areas, areas that are experiencing rapid demographic change. And they are doing this to win state legislatures, the same legislatures who have moved forward voter suppression laws and are moving the country dangerously close to minority rule. And lastly, they divide us to dismantle and privatize public goods. What do I mean by that? Public schools, public parks, public infrastructure. Think of your roads, your water, your lights, public libraries, public healthcare, as Chris Rufo said on his Twitter, "This culture war on critical race theory and gender ideology in schools, it's really not about those things. It's about creating universal public school distrust." In other words, the purpose is to paint public schools or "government schools" as spreading wokeness in order to scare parents to abandon public schools altogether and to make teaching untenable for our teachers.
We've seen so many news reports of the great teacher resignation. And so the strategy is to create a boogeyman to distract and divide us for their own gain and have us abandon public schools like libraries, like public schools. And it is precisely these public goods that should create opportunity for every one of us, like my family, regardless of race, religion, or background, that actually connect us to one another, to our neighbors in a democracy. This part cannot be stressed enough and it's critical to understand the roots of our division, the roots of this strategy. Precisely when the Civil rights movement mandated integration was when the movement to shrink government and privatize public goods gained speed. Instead of sharing across race the public goods that help connect us and help us thrive in a democracy, we abandon them all together. And that is the strategy for division.
You stoke fear and resentment. You stew this by, as I said, spreading false narratives like wokeness as a threat of us versus them. And this is personal to me. I know when, in the early two thousands as a gay Asian man, my existence was the boogey man. I remember when the threat of gay marriage was used by politicians to lessen scrutiny at a political agenda that prioritized tax cuts for the rich and an unjust war. You combine that with attacks on government by saying that government only serves those people, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, that government gets in the way of meritocracy or that the market should solve all of our social problems. This narrative has been so effective that anti-government attitudes are now a feature of American politics, even amongst supporters of equity and justice. And so we need a way to fight back.
In the face of manufactured division, in the face of leaders telling us to fear our neighbors, we need to tell stories and share narratives that elevate our humanity and our interconnectedness, that make popular and deeply felt that learning about and addressing racism, particularly systemic racism, is in service to us all, in service to our souls and as a benefit to everyone, and we need to own our power. You just saw Andrea and Christina talk about how you can get involved. Not only do we have the power to demand change, but we can implement change through government, through engaging in our public systems and fighting for them to be more equitable if we choose to join together. Next slide.
And so lastly, this is going to be a recurring theme. There are so many ways to put these ideas in action, to choose each other, to choose equity, to say no to the politics of division, even in your local school district. So as was mentioned, Heal Together, which is at Race Forward, is co-sponsoring this event. And we did this to beat back the culture wars at our schools and to advance honest and equitable public education as a pillar of a just multiracial democracy that we have yet to fully realize.
And so this campaign, it started in Essex, Vermont. In 2021, a divisive concepts bill aimed at whitewashing history was introduced by an extremist school board candidate in that neighborhood. And when that candidate hosted a town hall to introduce that bill, a multiracial group of students showed up en masse, and they were joined by parents too, all saying that everyone should have the freedom to learn through an honest and fully funded public education for all children to feel seen, their history is represented, and for them to learn about our society's mistakes so they can create a better future. Not only did they defeat that candidate, they passed an educational equity bill at the school board level. This means that a majority of people chose equity, they chose each other, and they chose to fight for public schools that truly reflect who we are and what we can be.
And now at Heal Together, which you can visit us at healtogether.org, we've been supporting other grassroots coalitions, students, educators, caregivers across the country to do the same. Remember, when powerful interests and certain politicians stoke these culture wars, it doesn't mean they have to win. They'll try to paint some of us as less than deserving, as the dividers in order to separate us so that they can continue picking our pockets, privatizing public goods that should create opportunity for all. And my personal story, the one I shared earlier, reminds me that we don't have to give into this. We can choose a different path, we can choose each other, and we can choose to see how we all benefit from equity. So for all of you, let's continue this work. Let's fight back against this culture war and continue to invest in and make better the public goods that help us all thrive, including public schools. Thank you very much for having me.
Andrea Huang, EmbraceRace:
Thank you, Dennis, so much for your talk. That was so powerful. I loved how deeply personal it was, of sharing your family's immigration story. I too am a product of the 1965 immigration law benefiting from black liberation that allowed my father and his family to join my great-grandfather in the US from Hong Kong after 36 years of separation. So I know what that is like. I just want to say, Dennis, I also really appreciated the ways you highlighted the connection between the decreasing of public goods, especially public schools and social division, but then the call to own our collective power and that example is so powerful of the students and parents coming together as a solution for equity. Thank you so much.