Scot Nakagawa: Civil Rights Are for Everyone

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 00:00 By Laura Flanders, Truthout | Interview
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Civil rights march.A Civil rights march on Washington DC schools, August 28, 1963. (Photo: Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia)

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The demand for jobs was the great, unmet demand of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While many by now have made that point, few have talked plainly about why federal investment in training and jobs for the unemployed dropped out of the picture of civil rights almost as soon as the '63 Marchers left Washington. 

Scot Nakagawa is not afraid to talk plainly. Nakagawa is co-founder and senior partner at Changelab and a blogger at Racefiles whose site launched this month after a provocative and exciting first year and a half.

"We can't solve a problem that no one is willing to name," wrote Rinku Sen at Colorlines recently. Nakagawa names it:

"Jobs were a critical demand. ... They were necessary for African-Americans to advance their rights and exercise certain sorts of freedom. ... It would have required a substantive investment on the part of our government in order to create those jobs ... While the white people did support the idea of civil rights … [white] people didn't want to see those substantive programs once it became quantifiable and the gain required sacrifice."

Why is it so hard to get real about rights? "I think it's important to remember that notion that only some people ever have rights is embedded in our history in a very deep way," Nakagawa tells Laura Flanders.

From slavery to Native American relocation, the country's founding stories are wrapped in strongly held beliefs that some Americans (originally colonizers) have not just rights, but rights over others. 

Today, much of what wasn't resolved in the '60s is coming back to haunt us in the form of racist police practices and so-called criminal law, segregation in education, housing and opportunity, and sickening concentrations of poverty.

Nakagawa said, "I think that the backlash that happened after the 1960s was pretty invisible, (as was) structural racism, which persisted in spite of 1964 and '65. ... "We really reduced the whole notion of rights to simple acts of prejudice and the way those acts of prejudice prevent us from being able to exercise certain kinds of freedoms, but not in the way that the cumulative effect of all that over time can result in poverty, persistent poverty and structural exclusion."

Another challenge Nakagawa and Changelab tackle is language. "Some of the ways in which we talk about race and rights (and write about race and rights) tends to strengthen damaging racial categories."
We are facing a long struggle. But when thinking about fighting over the next 50 years, Nakagawa offers up a small parcel of hope. As a boy growing up in 1960s Hawaii, he imagined a future of menial labor. "The fact that I was organized [30 years ago] and given an opportunity to get involved in agitating for change, in serving communities, changed my life. It changed everything about my life. It allowed me to re-create myself in the image of someone who believes that he actually has the ability to change the world, something I would never have imagined myself being."

The transformation you are engaged in, he suggests, may be your own.

Laura Flanders: We are in a summer of anniversaries, civil rights anniversaries to be exact. It's the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs and the 20th anniversary of the biggest-ever LGBTQ demonstration in Washington in 1993. Let's start with 50 years ago. When you think about Dr. King's March on Washington, what stands out to you?
Scot Nakagawa: It was a seminal moment for us. People look back on that time and see the great speeches and don't understand what it took to be there on that day. This was a fight against forces that were powerful and entrenched and incredibly violent. There was terrorism to overcome, local government corruption and the callousness of the federal government, which finally then started to turn its attitude and recognize the need to protect our constitutional liberties by advancing civil rights.
One of the things you allude to is [the notion] that people kind of just showed up in Washington and that the demonstration was what it was all about. Instead, it had been years of work, decades, and it wasn't just African-Americans that fed into that process. …
Certainly there [were] years of work and many, many organizers. We know the famous people who led the movement; we often don't know of the many, many people who did other work, the training, the education, the mobilizations. I used to work at the Highlander Center, which was one of the cradles of the Civil Rights Movement, and I had the opportunity of going through the archives and reading through them and just seeing hundreds and hundreds of documents created by many people, that described strategy, that told people's stories. It was a remarkable experience seeing the base of the Civil Rights Movement just expand and expand with each thing that I encountered. Certainly there were many people in many parts of the country who were involved in civil rights.
And some interesting coalitions. You write a lot about Asian-Americans and their important role that is very poorly understood.
In the 60s, Asian Americans in the United States were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement. They were very involved in [the] advancement of the cause of civil rights. It's very difficult for people to see that because so much of the Asian population at the time was concentrated in places like New York and San Francisco, on the coasts [and] so much of the action at the time, the drama, was being played out in the South. But Asian-Americans have always been involved in movements that advance civil and human rights. The invisibility that we suffer from tells a different kind of story, but the reality is is that there have always been leaders.
Yuri Kochiyama is a woman who grew up in California in San Pedro and who, during the war years (World War II), was interned. Her father was arrested for suspicion of un-American activities; he was questioned and denied medical care, and his health deteriorated while he was held under FBI custody. When he returned, he really had lost the ability to speak - and then died the next day. Shortly thereafter, the entire family was put in an internment camp, and she spent those years, three years, actually, in an internment camp and then returned to the community - and was still quite patriotic actually - but then moved with her husband to Harlem. And there in Harlem, New York, [she] started to see organizing activity going on in the black community and in particular came into contact with the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X's organization, and was deeply inspired by that. The coupling of that experience with her own experience of internment inspired her to become a civil rights and human rights leader, and she was and is that and has been all of her life. She's now in her 90s.
What do you think is the cost of the inadequate way in which we cover these movements and who's in them? The criticisms that you've laid out around our coverage of the civil rights movement, the invisibilities of somebody like Yuri. What do you think is the price we pay for that?
I think there are a number of things: One is there is massive confusion about civil rights in the United States. You reference the 1993 March on Washington [and] the march for LGBT rights. [That march] provided a lot of material for a Christian right-wing videotape that got circulated in Congress and got a lot of attention - [It was] called "Gay Rights Special Rights." In that video, they used footage from the 1993 march for LGBT equality to make the argument that the LGBT movement was "hi-jacking" the freedom train and taking it "from Selma to Sodom" and basically claimed that what we were asking for was "special rights."
They make this argument that I think many, many people fell prey to, [namely] that in order to be able enjoy civil rights in the United States, you have to demonstrate that you've been discriminated against in particular ways. Those particular ways had to result in intergenerational disadvantage. Basically, making the argument that only certain groups of people have civil rights - when we know that that's not the reality. Everyone has civil rights, but it produced a sense among the majority of the population that somehow civil rights were "special rights." So this is the kind of the thing that we open the door to when we essentialize civil rights to a particular community.
You can't help but feel that some of what we saw play out in our lifetimes targeting LGBT people, some of the resistance, the reaction, the backlash, was connected to a backlash that had been brewing for a very long time against civil rights in general. Is that fair to say?
In the United States, [liberals] have this idea that was rooted in the experience of the post-Great Depression era, the era of Franklin Roosevelt, that somehow it's basic to America to want to have this large benign government providing us with services. That broadly making investments is the thing that we all wish for and that is part of the American ethos. But the reality is that in the period before it and the period since, there is a deep cynicism in the American public about government and a deep cynicism in the American public about the idea of making social investments in people - particularly to address issues of poverty.
Also a deep-seated and long-lived resentment that's not so often articulated: "Why are those people getting rights?" Particularly white males are often appealed to by different leaders on those grounds. "If we give rights to those people, it's going to be coming from your rights. " It's a zero-sum kind of equation. Have we moved beyond that?
I don't think we have moved beyond that. I think it's important to remember that that notion that only some people ever have rights is embedded in our history in a very deep way. We are a nation that is founded in slavery. I know that that's a tough idea for people, but the reason it's important for us reconcile ourselves with that reality is because slavery both capitalized the United States of America, the original colonies and then eventually the United States of America, and it provided the labor force necessary in order for us to build the economy that we eventually had. Because we had that enslaved labor force, the whole idea of America as the land of opportunity ("the American Dream") is rooted in an experience of European immigrants who came to the United States in order to escape wage labor in Europe. They came and became landed gentry. They may have been very poor when they came here. They may have been dirt poor as people would say, but they were their own bosses; that was the dream.
And in the same way the "go West young man" expansion was made possible through the mass expropriation of the land of indigenous people.
Yes, by American Indian removal. So these ideas about the United States as the "land of immigrants," as the land of the American Dream are really in [a] sense racist tropes. African-Americans who are descended from slaves are not the descendants of immigrants. They're the descendants of hostages. Native Americans who were here first, are not immigrants. So for a land of immigrants, who are we really talking about?
Mexicans who were on [conquered] Mexican land.
The journey civil rights took from '63 to '93, do you want to talk about that for a little bit? You were very involved in '93. Was there a consciousness of learning from mistakes of the past, trying to do things differently?
I think that the '93 civil rights march was a march that was very specifically targeted to be able to advance the rights of LGBT people within a civil rights framework, and drew a lot upon the themes of the black civil rights movement. I'm not sure that [when] we were doing that work we understood exactly how limited the outcomes we could hope for by using those themes could be. I think that [to] much of the leadership, the backlash that happened after the 1960s was pretty invisible. … And the fact that structural racism persisted in spite of 1964 and '65 was pretty invisible to them. We really reduced the whole notion of rights to simple acts of prejudice and the way those acts of prejudice prevent us from being able to exercise certain kinds of freedoms but not in the way that the cumulative effect of all of that over time can result in poverty, persistent poverty and structural exclusion.
One of the things we forget because our media encourages us to forget is that Dr. King's march was a march also for jobs. What about that economic context? It seems to me these days we put civil rights in one silo and economic rights or jobs in another altogether.
It's very important to remember that jobs was a demand. It was a critical demand because African-Americans were discriminated in ways that resulted in economic oppression. Jobs were necessary in order for African-Americans to advance their rights and improve their situation.
Jobs that pay living wages.
Jobs that pay living wages, unlike so many that are being created today. But that demand for jobs was one of the demands that was really not met. It would have required a substantive investment on the part of our government to create those jobs. And what we found was that in that period, while the white public did support the idea of civil rights, the idea that people should not be discriminated against based on the color of their skin, when real programs started to get set up, programs like affirmative action for example, there was backlash. People didn't want to see those substantive programs once it started to be quantifiable and the gains required sacrifice; there was resistance.
One of the things you do at Changelab and at Racefiles is try to anticipate what's coming down the 'pike. In terms of backlashes and opportunities. You seem to be tackling language. Why? What's brewing out there?
I think that the way we use language has tremendous consequences. We are concerned about the way in which we often talk about race and rights because some of the ways in which we talk about race and rights, and write about race and rights, tends to strengthen damaging racial categories. So for instance, we'll talk about sickle cell anemia as a health problem related to race as opposed to one that's related to geography. Not all black people are more likely to experience sickle cell anemia; it depends on where you are from. There are other kinds of issues like that where we use this language that basically makes a direct association between race, which is really just a social construct - something made up in order to justify the creation of a political system at the bottom of which was slavery. We make these connections as though somehow race is real; race is biological; race is cultural - race is none of those things. We are trying to figure out, how do you develop a language that acknowledges the reality of racism but that doesn't go further to reify the notion of race?
This becomes all the more important as people are decoding DNA structures and genes and imagining a connection they can pinpoint in our cell structure.
People like Jason Richwine, who will say there is an IQ and race correlation or perhaps not a race correlation, but there is a kind of correlation that you can deduce that has to do with race.
Just like that gay gene.
Just like the gay gene.
When we talk about legacy of movements, we often talk about legal accomplishments. I think we sometimes miss out on the personal implications of what it's like to be able to be a part of movements like these.

I grew up in the '60s and '70s; I'm a man in his 50s now and I got involved in doing this kind of work - social justice work - when I was a very young person and have actually been employed in this work since I was 18 years old. That's a period now for me of well over 30 years. I have been doing this for a long, long time. The life I had up until the point in which I found this work, at the point at which I was basically organized, was one that had in it very limited opportunity. I really never envisioned myself doing anything that wasn't just basically menial labor. And the fact that I was organized and was given an opportunity to get involved in agitating for change, get involved in serving communities, changed my life; it changed everything about my life. It allowed me to be able to re-create myself in the image of someone who believes that he actually has the ability to change the world, something I would never have imagined myself being, as a youngster. 
So for anybody out there who wants to make the next 50 years of civil rights history there's a good reason to do it.

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Laura Flanders

Best-selling author and broadcaster Laura Flanders is the "strong local economies" fellow at Yes! Magazine and a contributing writer to The Nation. She hosts "The Laura Flanders Show" on GRITtv, an independent source for in-depth interviews with forward thinking people. Sign up to receive the latest at or On Twitter, she's @GRITlaura.

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