My Racist Infatuation With Robert E. Lee

My Racist Infatuation With Robert E. Lee

I have a confession.

For most of my life, one of my heroes was Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who led the armies of the southern rebellion during the American Civil War.  As a child, I was fascinated by the Civil War and quickly gravitated to Lee as its most brilliant general.  In the books I read, Lee was portrayed as a reluctant rebel, forced by honor to defend his beloved Virginia.  That he had owned many slaves was seldom mentioned.

Instead, my readings regaled me with stories of this gentleman soldier, kind and compassionate, dogged and determined, defeating and repulsing each Northern general he opposed.  His final defeat was a sad event and the result of the brutal tactics of General Ulysses S. Grant, who was a drunk and butcher and eventually a terrible president.  Even after I became an anti-racism proponent, this infatuation with Robert E. Lee went unexamined.

That changed last year when I read the book Grant, Ron Chernow’s award winning biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  His description of Grant challenged all I had been taught and assumed.  In Grant, I discovered an equally brilliant general, one who outmaneuvered every Southern general including Lee.  While Grant did have a drinking problem, it was one he battled successfully for most of his life.  He did so out of a deep commitment to serving his country and ending what he considered one of its greatest sins – the enslavement of black men, women and children.

As a president, he was responsible for the best eight years in American black history until the 1960s.  Under his administration, the Klan was dismantled, blacks were educated and voted, their civil rights were protected, black Senators and representatives sat in Congress and white supremacy was temporarily thwarted.  For this, he was deeply hated by white supremacists; many of whom would write the histories of the Civil War that I would read as a child.  They sought to obscure and denigrate one of our more noble historic figures – someone who would have made a good hero.

Discovering the real Grant forced me to reexamine my infatuation with Robert E. Lee and to learn more about the Lost Cause movement that so influenced my childhood perceptions.  In so doing, I discovered how subtly the meaning of the Civil War was and continues to be twisted.  Lee was portrayed as a gentleman forced to defend his honor and not a disloyal soldier violating his oath of office.  The War was reframed as a defense of states’ rights and not of enslavement.  At the height of its power, the Lost Cause movement would build hundreds of memorials to Southern generals and soldiers across the nation, all with the intent of promoting a false narrative.

Perhaps one of my most vivid experiences of this narrative was when I visited the battlefield at Gettysburg.  My family and I participated in a guided tour of Picket’s Charge, one of the most momentous moments of the war, where a Southern victory could have led to the rebellion’s success.  As the guide led us across that grassy field, he waxed poetic about the bravery of Lee, Picket and the southern soldiers as they marched against a northern army hiding behind a stone wall on Seminary Ridge.  Our tour ended at that wall, which was described as the high water mark of the Confederacy.  We were then asked to look back across the field and remember all those who died in that battle.

Think about that.

In this story, the soldiers rebelling against the United States were the brave heroes who we should mourn.  The northern solider were butchers, hiding behind walls and murdering the noble southerners.  Though Picket’s Charge is largely seen as a strategic blunder that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, the events of that day are named after this southern general.  That event is not called Meade’s Stand, though it was Meade and the northern soldiers who won this battle.  Instead, we are left with the impression that Picket’s defeat was a tragedy.

It was not.

Picket’s defeat would be the beginning of the end of the southern rebellion.  His defeat meant that almost three million black men, women and children would soon be freed from enslavement.  What died on Seminary Ridge was not a noble lost cause, but an ugly and brutal system of denigration, violence and murder.

Here is the truth about Robert E. Lee.  He owned a large plantation with many enslaved men, women and children.  Much of his wealth was tied up in these enslaved people.  Like many in Virginia, his primary cash crop was humans, selling off parents from their children and children from their parents.  He personally whipped disobedient slaves and had brine poured in their wounds.  Lee argued that enslavement was a good practice, necessary for the disciplining and training of an inferior race.  In other words, Lee was an ardent white supremacist.

Robert E. Lee is no longer heroic to me.  I’ve become a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who defeated Lee and ended his way of life.  I have also become increasingly aware of how the Lost Cause movement continues to thrive in the United States.  Our textbooks still offer its twisted narrative, our parks still have monuments to its lies, our movies still present its propaganda and tour guides at Gettysburg still mourn the wrong soldiers.

This is why racism is so insidious in the United States.  We are still not united.  Too many of us still understand the Civil War differently.  We still have Confederate flags flying over southern state capitals.  Too many people still admire Robert E. Lee.  For many, the Civil War remains a tragic defeat instead of a glorious victory.

Our national heroes say much about us.

Honoring Ulysses S. Grant more than Robert E. Lee would be a good start in rethinking our history and nation.

Don’t Threaten My Daughter

Don’t Threaten My Daughter

(The Indiana Legislature is considering a bill (SB449) that would double the number of offenses in the state of Indiana where children as young as 12 could be sent directly to adult court and prison. The following is my letter to Ms. Erin Houchin, one of the Republican state senators who authored this bill.)

Dear Ms. Houchin,

Don’t threaten my daughter.

As the white father of a 12-year-old black daughter, I am deeply troubled with why you felt it necessary to author and submit Senate Bill 449 – a bill that would double the number of offenses in the state of Indiana where children as young as 12 could be sent directly to adult court and prison.  I am not just troubled; I am angry.

I am angry because I question your motives.

You and others argue this proposed law is color blind and aimed at increasing public safety, but the facts don’t support your claims.  First, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, juvenile crime is actually decreasing in the state of Indiana and lower than the national average.  There is no juvenile crime spree demanding a response.

Second, in 2018, 76% of Indiana direct file cases – where children were automatically sent to adult court – were children of color.  This is in a state where only 15% of our children are black or latino.  In practice, SB449 will put more and more children of color like my daughter in adult courts and prisons.

But, of course, you already know these facts.  Which means I have to ask why you’d author such an unneeded and inequitable bill?  Why would you deny children the services and supports of our juvenile justice system?  What are you really afraid of?

As a white man who grew up in a small, rural community like your hometown of Salem, Indiana, I have my suspicions.  I worry that you’re driven by the psychological and sociological deficiencies of many white people.  Can you and I admit that we are afraid of black people?  That we are especially afraid of black people if we grew up in rural communities like Salem, Indiana where black people do not live.  That this lack of interaction with human beings of different skin colors results in flawed assumptions about them.  I know that was true for me.

Can we admit – based on racial bias research – that when white people like you and me are asked to describe a drug dealer, we are likely to describe a black person, even though the drug dealers in towns like Salem, Indiana are white?  Can we admit that we are more likely to question the innocence of a black person who is alleged to have committed the same crime as a white person?  Can we admit that when asked to estimate the age of black children between the ages of 10 and 17 that you and I will probably overestimate their age by 4.5 years?

These deficiencies on the part of white people like you and me are dangerous.  This is why George Zimmerman felt threatened and ultimately killed Trayvon Martin, a teenager returning from buying a bag of Skittles at a convenience store.  This is why white police officers gunned down Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun at his local park.  This is also why Aaron Pesky, a white judge in California, sentenced a 19-year-old white teenager named Blake Turner to six months of prison for raping an unconscious woman.  He justified this light sentence by arguing that the rape was a “youthful lapse in judgement” and that a harsh sentence would have a serious impact on Turner’s future.

Think about that.

In the United States, we treat 19-year-old white teenagers like 12-year-olds and 12-year-old black teenagers like 19-year-olds.  We rob black children of their adolescence. One minute they are children, deserving of the state’s protection and the next they are threatening adults, targets for the state’s prison system.  Laws like SB449 exaggerate our deeply seated racial biases, allowing us to justify imprisoning black children while excusing similar behavior by white children.  SB449 will accelerate the school to prison pipeline that destroys so many black lives.

Here is the bottom line.

Study after study has shown that the human mind doesn’t fully develop until about the age of 25.  The younger the age of a person, the less capable they are of rational thinking, ethical decision making and non-impulsive behavior.  This is equally true for both white and black teenagers.  In truth, SB449 represents an unwillingness to understand and apply our knowledge about children.  Putting children in adult prison is always bad policy.  Adopting laws that put children in adult prison in a society where black children are already more likely to be seen as adults is racist policy.

Ms. Houchin, I know you think your bill will make us safer, but when I consider my black daughter’s future in Indiana, it is people like you who scare me.  It is white people who are oblivious to their own racial biases who frighten me.  I am afraid of those who will see my 12-year-old daughter as 16 or 17 years old, who will see her as less innocent, and who will consider her a threat regardless of how she acts.  And, if she should ever do something stupid or immature, I am deeply afraid of a system that does not see her life as worth redeeming.

As the father of one of the unstated targets of SB449, I ask you to reconsider your sponsorship and support of SB449.  More importantly, I hope you’ll consider this moment as an opportunity to think more deeply about your biases and prejudices.  As a man raised in a rural Midwestern community, I know how difficult that can be.  I also know it is possible to change your heart and mind.

Respectfully,

James Mulholland

(If you live in the state of Indiana, I ask you to write your Senators and Representatives and demand they oppose SB449.  You can find e-mails and phone numbers for your representatives here.)

I Have A Demand

I Have A Demand

It wasn’t entitled “I Have A Dream.”

On that day in August of 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to speak, the speech in his hand was entitled “Normalcy…Never Again.” When he gave that speech, the closing riff about “his dream” wasn’t in his written notes.  It was something he improvised to energize a crowd that seemed disconnected from his prepared words.  At the time, the speech was well received, but quickly forgotten as police violently attacked civil rights protesters across the US.  Two years later, when asked about that speech, King would famously say, “I have had to watch my dream transformed into a nightmare.”

This past Friday, I attended the 39th Annual Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr held by the Indianapolis Public School system.  This event, annually organized by anti-racist icon Dr. Pat Payne, filled the auditorium of the Crispus Attucks High School with over a thousand mostly black folk.  While the music was inspiring and the speeches powerful, it was a recitation of the speech by elementary children from the Building Blocks Academy that stole the show.  This was no monotone reading, but a memorized and passionate appeal that gained power with each word.  By the end, many were in tears.  As I cried, I was also aware of how we’ve neutered that powerful speech, emphasizing the words King added rather than the words he spent days preparing.

Listen to these words from the speech…

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us – upon demand – the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

As I heard these words recited by those children on Friday, I realized that, as with many things, white Americans have subverted the intent and efforts of black Americans once again.  We love to quote one or two lines from the speech, especially “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Indeed, I have had white supremacists quote these words to me as “evidence” that my critique of white behavior is racist.  I am allegedly judging them by the color of their skin.

Think about that.

White Americans, who once thought King “public enemy #1,” now quote select words from that speech to claim oppression.  They intentionally ignore the rest of his speech, the parts that call their injustice and racism into question.  They suggest men like Kaepernick and Ta-Nehisi Coates are greedy and unpatriotic for words far less provocative than those of King.  They fail to acknowledge that King wasn’t murdered because he was a moderate, extolling a “can’t we all just get along” philosophy.  King was killed for his demands and not his dreams.

King did not mount those steps in 1963 to celebrate a dream.  King came to collect a debt.  And, like him, a part of me wishes he had never added those words about his dream.  Too many white Americans have happily adopted the dream – something to happen in the far off future – rather than work for the justice and equity King demanded.  Or, even worse, we’ve had the audacity to look around our culture today and suggest the dream has been fulfilled.  Laws have changed.  Opportunities have expanded.  We even elected a black president.

Of course, he was a neutered black president.

Imagine for one moment that Barack Obama has spoken these words in a campaign speech, “America has given black people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”, but I refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. I refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, I am coming to cash that check, a check that will give black people – upon demand – the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

If he had spoken those words, he would not have been elected.

Instead, Barack Obama spoke of hope…of dreams.

On Friday, as I sat in that auditorium with descendants of enslaved people, aged black warriors who once marched with King, and children who are still being judged by the color of their skin, I sensed their deep frustration. That we ended the program by singing “We Shall Overcome” was revealing.  The dream has not been realized.  The demands have not been met.  So many of the obstacles have yet to be overcome.

One of those obstacles will always be white people who like racial justice as a dream.

My Best Blogs of 2019

My Best Blogs of 2019

At the end of each year, I always take some time to review my posts from the previous year. With the help of Google Analytics, I can identify the most read posts. From comments, I can determine what was most provocative. In rereading my posts, I can often see where my awareness and attitudes around racism have grown or shifted.  Whether you’ve been following my blog for years or only recently, I offer this quick summary – with links – to eight of my best blogs of 2019.

MOST READ

In an October poll, only 15% of white American supported reparations for the injuries of slavery and racial discrimination.  While a few of the 85% who oppose reparations may have rejected the idea after study and reflection, most of this opposition is a knee jerk response borne of conscious or unconscious racism.  This reinforces what I expressed in the blog, “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.”  The most read blog in 2017 – when I wrote it – my exploration of reparational arguments was also the most read in 2019.  To date, over 156,000 people have read this post.

MOST REVEALING

I am often surprised by which blogs resonate and which do not.  In the blog, “Things I Didn’t Know,” I simply outlined the many historic facts about slavery and racial discrimination I hadn’t known after 20 years of American education and over 50 years of life.  Nearly 30,000 readers checked out my list with many commenting or e-mailing admissions of their own ignorance.  When my black friends remind me that education is not enough in addressing racism, I understand their desire for action.  I also suspect they underestimate the ignorance of whites about our shared racial history.

MOST ENCOURAGING

I began this blog as a personal quest to better understand my deeply ingrained racist indoctrination and the racist society that indoctrinated me.  The blog “When Compliments Are Racist” represents that quest.  This blog – one of the most read in 2018 and 2019 – acknowledged the many subtle ways in which I and many other white people sustain racism.  These kinds of blogs truly are “notes to my white self,”  That many others have found this blog helpful is encouraging.

MOST DISCOURAGING 

That only a couple of thousand people read the blog “How White Parents Teach Racism” was a discouragement to me.  This blog examined how easily and early white parents pass on their racist tendencies to their children.  The research I did prior to writing this blog was startling to me.  It convinced me that being non-racist – something most white parents claim – is the surest way to insure the maintenance of white supremacy, dishonesty and idolatry.

MOST IMPORTANT

Many have encouraged me to write a book on racism.  There is no need.  In my opinion, one of the best books on racism was written this year by Ibram Kendi, a historian at American University.  His book “How To Be An Anti-Racist” helped me understand why my discussions and arguments with other white people are often fruitless.  White people have convinced themselves that being non-racist is enough, unaware that there is no middle ground around racism – you’re either a proponent or an opponent.  In my blog, “Are You Anti-Racist?’  I created four questions to help white people identify their present position on racism.

MOST THERAPEUTIC

Sometimes this blog had been a forum for research and reflection. At other times, it has been an avenue for challenging myself to change.  Often, it has been a critique of white society.  While many have shared their appreciation of this blog, I have also been the target of a fair amount of criticism – which I welcome – and attack – which I don’t.  I learned early on that comments on my blog needed to be approved.  Like Michael Moore recently said, “White people are not good people.”  Some of them are deplorable.  The blog “When Other White People Attack You” was a reminder that you are known by your enemies as well as by your friends.

MOST FRUSTRATING

Again and again, I am surprised by how quickly white people prefer nearly any explanation for the ills and injustices of our society other than racism. Even though the data demonstrates irrefutable evidence of bias and discrimination in every aspect of our society, white people naturally gravitate to any rationale – no matter how ridiculous – if it allows them to avoid addressing racism.  Unfortunately, this is as common on the left as it is on the right.  In the blog “Anything But Racism,” I examine this frustrating white propensity.

MOST TIMELY

In 2020, our nation will once again elect a president.  For many, there are fears about the legitimacy of that election.  However, my fears are not of Russian interference.  I fear our system’s historic success in finding one way or another to eliminate the votes of people of color.  If there is any blog, I wish I could ask every American to read, it would probably be “One Person, No Vote.”  This blog has had 41 readers since I posted it last January.  I’d love to see it become one of my most read in 2020.

A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION

With that in mind, I want to share my commitment for 2020.  I am convinced the foundations of our democracy are being challenged.  The long progress made by people of color around their ability to vote is once again under attack.  I care less about who the Democratic candidate for president will be and more about whether many people of color will even be able to cast a vote.  My wife and I are committing $500 each month to support groups seeking to protect voting rights and help register voters.  In January, we’re making a donation to Fair Fight Action, the Stacy Abrams led organization working for voter’s rights across the USA.  I encourage you to do what you can.

White Privilege and Other Half-Truths

White Privilege and Other Half-Truths

One of the obstacles to addressing racism in the United States is the language we use to discuss it.  Too often, the words we use to describe ugly human behavior and unjust societal practice obscure that very ugliness and injustice. When those of us who are anti-racist use this imprecise language, we allow society to avoid difficult truths and honest conversation.

Take the term “white privilege” as an example.  A privilege is something earned or bestowed.  In describing the advantages of white people in the United States as an honor, we actually confirm – rather than challenge – what many white people already believe.  They think white privilege is the result of white people being smarter, harder working, better at handling money, more responsible as parents or superior in some other manner.  They can make such arguments because the term “white privilege” is a half-truth.

White privilege – as a term – fails to explicitly identify the primary reason white families have ten times the financial assets of black families.  Those privileges were not earned or bestowed.  They are the spoils of thievery.  For 400 years, white Americans have stolen the deserved rewards of black labor, invention and initiative.  The enslavement of black families was the indisputable theft of financial compensation, but the thievery didn’t end with emancipation.  One of the surest ways to become a target of lynching in the late 1800s was for a black family to acquire wealth.  The destruction of the black community in Tulsa in 1921 was directly connected to its reputation as Black Wall Street.  Social Security and the GI Bill policies robbed black families of billions in potential assets.

White Americans are not the beneficiaries of white privilege.  We are not smarter, harder working, better with money or parenting.  We are the recipients of stolen goods.  The way we describe this reality should not be ambiguous.  We need to call it what it was and is – white thievery.

Consider the term “white supremacy.” Like white privilege, this term is a half-truth.  Yes, white people and their culture have been supreme in the United States, but this is not because white people and their culture were or are superior.  White culture is supreme because white people violently and systemically subjugated, diminished or destroyed people of color and their cultures.  White culture used politics, religion and even science to promote a false belief that whites were inherently superior.

The problem with using terms like white supremacy is that they tacitly validate this false narrative.  Anti-racists should never use terms with which racists proudly identify.  We should call false narratives by names that expose their true roots.  White supremacy was and is designed to promote whiteness, to lift it up falsely as the epitome of human evolution.  We should call it what it was and is – white idolatry.

This habit of half-truths, of mislabeling or defining racist behavior in ways that obscure ugly realities occurs in nearly every discussion of racism. Consider the term we use to describe the practice of white bankers, real estate agents and politicians colluding to isolate, devalue and exploit black communities.  We call this ugly and unjust practice “redlining.

While white power brokers may have used red ink to identify the black neighborhoods where they would refuse to invest, any term which sounds like something a child might do with a crayon is inadequate. This practice devalued black property values, denied black families access to loans and forced blacks to live in older neighborhoods with deteriorating infrastructure.  In so doing, this kept black families from accumulating assets.  Calling this practice redlining is a half-truth.

What these white dominated organizations did was create ghettos – places where black people were forced to live in crowded, substandard housing.   These ghettos – when combined with calls for community schools – essentially created an American apartheid, where black and white people were discouraged from socially interacting.  Blacks who violated these societal strictures were lynched, burned out and socially ostracized.  We need to call this what it was and is – ghetto creation.

While most white people have heard of racial profiling, they don’t appreciate it ugliness.  How could they?  Profiles are something you create for a dating service or on Facebook.  Defining what happens to black people every day as “racial profiling” is a half-truth.  Being followed around in stores by security guards is not profiling, it’s embarrassing.  Being asked to justify your presence in a white neighborhood isn’t profiling, it’s humiliating. Being pulled over by the police repeatedly for no obvious reason isn’t profiling, it’s dangerous. Black people die.

By using the term profiling, we legitimize such practices.  This abusive behavior becomes statically defensible.  When blacks in New York City are stopped and interrogated by the police repeatedly, it is defined as an anti-crime strategy.  We need to call this what it was and is – racist police harassment.

Racial bias is another half-truth.  Using that term to describe the behavior of both black and white people allows people to pretend racism is a human affliction.  When we argue that everyone has some racial bias, we obscure how those biases play out in American society.  What black people experience in our society is not the natural and common tendency of people to make incorrect assumptions about those who are different than them.

That white people have been lynched for being “n****r lovers” should be evidence enough of the depth of white animosity.  That I am repeatedly accused of racial disloyalty should be evidence enough of white motivation.  Racial bias completely fails in describing the feelings of many white people toward black people.  We need to call it what it was and is – racial hatred.

Of course, using terms like white thievery, white idolatry, ghetto creation, racist police harassment and racial hatred will be criticized as inflammatory and divisive.  In accurately describing the ugliness – ironically – I will be accused of being ugly.  Most white people will not argue with the truthfulness of these descriptions of black experience.  They will not deny the injustice of it all.  They will merely suggest using this language is unhelpful and offensive.

This response is often called white fragility, but that too is a half-truth.

White people are not too fragile to hear the truth.  We are too invested in the status quo to speak it.  Imprecise language helps us avoid conversations about our responsibility for the racial ugliness in our nation.  We need to call this what it has always been – white dishonesty.

If we ever hope to end racism and its ravages in the United States, we need to have genuine conversations about the realities – past and present.  These conversations cannot be full of half-truths.  We need conversations where both black and white people are calling behaviors and ideas what they truly are.  Then and only then will our conversations move us forward.

The Absurdity of White Male Whining

The Absurdity of White Male Whining

Mitch Daniels got his feelings hurt.

Daniels, who is the former governor of Indiana and the president of Purdue University, is also the most common of creatures – a fragile white man who whines if anyone challenges his racism.

If calling Daniels “a creature” seems an odd phrase, it should.  Few of us would use the term, especially in reference to another human.  Even as a literary device, it is rare and outdated.  Though a common idiom in the 1800s, it rings strange to modern ears.  Since Mitch Daniels knew all of this, it makes it all the more disturbing that he tried to defend his use of the term “creature” to describe a black person.

Here is the context.  On November 20th, during a meeting with a group of black civil rights advocates, Daniels boasted of the upcoming hiring of a black scholar as finding “the rarest of creatures.”  When immediately challenged for referring to a black person as a creature, Daniels defended his remarks as innocent and implied he was being misunderstood.  Indeed, in later remarks, he whined, “I have never been so misunderstood in my life.”

Poor white man.

Obviously, Daniels was upset that while trying to do a good thing – hire more black scholars – he had been criticized for doing a racist thing – referring to a black person as a creature.  He wanted everyone to focus on his anti-racist action and ignore his racist rhetoric.  Instead of simply acknowledging his poor choice of words and how easily white people make such errors, Daniels did what most white men do when challenged – he began to whine about the unfairness of it all.

I understand his response.  It used to be mine.  When I first began to advocate for anti-racism, I often expressed ideas or used words that black people challenged.  They usually did so without rancor, intent on making me aware of my unconscious bias.  Yet my usual response was defensive, suggesting what I’d said wasn’t what I had meant or really believed.  The problem was theirs and not mine.  They had misunderstood.

Gradually, I abandoned this knee jerk response.  I realized they hadn’t misunderstood.  They had easily identified that to which I was oblivious.  The problem wasn’t with their sensitivity, but with mine.  I wasn’t aware of how much of what I said and thought still echoed white supremacist ideology.  I learned to let go of my defensiveness and thank them for their assistance in eliminating such ugliness from my vocabulary and thinking.

That being said, it is entirely possible – even today – that I might have used that odd turn of phrase – the rarest of creatures – to describe a black person.  Since most white people have understood black people as subhuman for centuries, it shouldn’t be surprising that we are still prone to thinking and expressing such sentiments.  I do not fault Daniels for his error.

What I find so frustrating is his unwillingness to do the simplest of things – apologize and acknowledge his latent racism.  Daniels, like many white men, wants to believe he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.”  That isn’t true.  Racism runs through blood and bone in all of us.  Even black people can’t escape its insidious power, internalizing much of the negativity of our culture toward themselves.  Mitch Daniels could have used his error as a learning and teaching opportunity.  When challenged, he could have paused, shook his head in disgust, and said, “I apologize.  That was a terrible choice of words and one that demonstrates my continued struggle to free myself from racist tendencies.”

Instead, he decided to whine.

What makes this whining so absurd is that – for hundreds of years – white men have presented themselves as the epitome of individual responsibility.  That others were less successful was repeatedly blamed on their “willingness to be victims.”  Indeed, the local newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana, opined in an editorial that Daniels’ detractors were “victims of their own victimhood.”  The editors – probably all white men – were unable to see the irony that the person they were defending – Mitch Daniels – was the only one claiming victimhood.

Let me be clear.

I have considerable sympathy for any person of color who laments the inequities of our past and present.  While those complaints may or may not inspire them to action or resistance, there is nothing unreasonable about identifying the obstacles you face in our society.  What I find obnoxious is when entitled white men who have had every benefit of a white supremacist society suddenly want to play the victim and whine about inequity.

Mitch Daniels got his feelings hurt.  He feels misunderstood by the “mean black people.”

I suspect black people don’t give a damn.

Neither do I.

After all, the oppressed white male is rarest of creatures.

Thanksgiving and the Tale of Two Ships

Thanksgiving and the Tale of Two Ships

For most of my life, I’ve considered the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower as the primary origin story of the United States.  I thought this for good reason.  It was what I was taught in elementary school.  Indeed, in the fifth grade, I played the part of William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, in a school drama.  Though I don’t remember my lines, even then I knew we were celebrating more than thanksgiving.  The month of November was an annual celebration of our white, English fore-bearers and our mythology about them.

Every Thanksgiving we would study that first celebratory meal between the Pilgrims and the Indians.  We’d learn the Pilgrims had fled England in search of a land where they could worship God freely.  We were told these English men and women – with a little help from some friendly Indians – were the founders of a superior way of life in a new world.  Jonathan Winthrop, another Pilgrim, would famously describe that early colony as “a city upon a hill” and an example of righteousness for the whole world.  This metaphor has been used ever since by everyone from JFK to Reagan to Obama.  The Thanksgiving origin story is so central to our American narrative that most Americans know of the ship called the Mayflower.

Unfortunately, another ship – the White Lion – which landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 was completely unknown to me until this past year.  That was for an equally good reason.  No one – in all my American history courses – ever mentioned it.  Indeed, if not for the New York Times 1619 Project, I still wouldn’t know about the White Lion and its passengers.  For generations of Americans, though the arrival of the White Lion was as momentous as that of the Mayflower, the significance of that ship has been obscured and its passengers unacknowledged.

The White Lion was the first recorded ship to disembark enslaved Africans on our shores.  In the summer of 1619, the captain of that ship exchanged about 20 enslaved Africans for food and supplies.  These men and women would be as pivotal to the American narrative as the men and women of the Mayflower. While the descendants of the Pilgrims would become known for their work ethic, it would be the descendants of the men and women of the White Lion who would do much of the work clearing land, plowing fields, harvesting crops and building the early European communities in North America.

The ironies abound when you compare the Mayflower and White Lion.  As a child, we were taught of the bravery of the Pilgrims, who risked all on their two-month journey across the Atlantic. The Pilgrims were pictured huddled in the crowded hold of the Mayflower, praying for God’s protection. Tragically, five of the 107 passengers of the Mayflower died during that voyage.  I know all of this because we’ve romanticized their journey and proclaimed their landing at Plymouth Rock as a moment of divine providence.

We were not taught about the resilience and courage of those first enslaved people, who watched as over half of the 350 men and women crammed onto the White Lion died during their three-month passage from Africa.  Our textbooks had no pictures of men and women stacked like wood in the hold of the White Lion, praying for their own deaths.  No one celebrated this example of human endurance.  No one acknowledged the evils the White Lion represented.

The differences in our knowledge about these two ships is illustrative of so much about the trajectories of their passengers.  We know enough about the passengers of the Mayflower that nearly 35 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to those first Pilgrims.  We know their names, their occupations, the composition of their families and their successes and failures.  For those first 20 enslaved black Americans, we know very little.  We know only two names, none of their histories back in Africa, nothing about the families they left behind and little about the work they did to help our white ancestors survive and eventually thrive.  We don’t know how many millions of Americans can trace their ancestry back to the White Lion, but statistically it is as likely as with the Mayflower.

The White Lion and the story of its passengers is as much an American origin story as that of the Mayflower.  For the next 400 years, without the contributions of the descendants of the White Lion, the descendants of the Mayflower couldn’t have constructed their “city upon a hill.”  While the Pilgrims may have extolled the benefits of hard work, much of the wealth of the United States was built on the scarred backs of the descendants of the White Lion, men and women who received none of those promised benefits. If there is any group of early Americans who deserve our thanks, it is the men and women of the White Lion.  Yet generation after generation of white Americans have ignored or minimized their contributions.  We hold no annual remembrances of their journey, survival and accomplishments.

There is good reason for this.  White Americans have never wanted to admit that “the city upon a hill” has a checkered history.  When it comes to human rights, our nation isn’t an example of a superior way of life or of righteousness for the whole world.  Though the city upon the hill has always hidden its subterranean dungeons, where people of color were abused, tortured and killed, the rest of the world knows this uglier truth.  The only people we continue to fool is ourselves.  Four hundred years after the White Lion arrived, most of our schools still promote only one origin story – the one where the white people are the heroes.

In many ways, Thanksgiving isn’t about thanksgiving at all.  It has always been a thinly disguised white supremacist narrative, one unrepentant for past atrocities, ungrateful for all of the many contributions of people of color and unwilling to compensate them for their unrewarded labor.

While I understand this blog is too long to read at your Thanksgiving dinner, I encourage you to take a moment at your celebration to say, “Today, four hundred years after the ship the While Lion brought the first 20 enslaved Africans to North America, I want to express my deepest gratitude to their descendants for their enormous contributions to the economic, social and political vitality of our nation.”

This is a gratitude long overdue.