White Space

White Space

I recently read a Facebook post in which a woman of color lamented how often she is forced to step aside on the sidewalk to make way for a white person.  After describing several recent instances, she complained of how galling she found such behavior – offensive in its entitlement and disturbingly reminiscent of a time when there were codes requiring her to make way.  When she spoke of refusing to step aside in the future, several white people chastised her for encouraging rudeness.  Ironically, even the space on her Facebook page wasn’t immune to white encroachment.

Her remarks prodded me to examine my behavior.  In many situations, when I encounter other white men on a sidewalk, I too have experienced this game of chicken, where men assert their dominance, forcing me to step aside. Though I don’t understand my masculinity in such terms, I do find their behavior irritating.  It never occurred to me that, if they behave this way with another white man, they would most certainly expect deference in their encounters with women or people of color.  Nor did it occur to me that my irritation at having to step aside for another white man might be the result of how rarely I’m placed in such a position.

Closely observing my own behavior, I’ve discovered an entitlement of which I had been unaware.  I often walk in public spaces with little concern for or awareness of those around me, assuming they will make way for me.  When this assumption is challenged by another person, I step aside, but often with either irritation or a sense of superiority.  They were either rude or I was being gentlemanly, graciously allowing them to proceed through my space.  As a white male, I unconsciously expect deference in public space.

While some of this self-absorption is probably universal, white people are especially prone to the assumption that the space we inhabit belongs to us.  We look at our neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, governments, country and even the world as “white space.”  They are places created by and for us.  All others are interlopers and invaders, free to remain as long as they behave properly and respect our ownership of the space.  When this expectation is violated, we quickly assert our prerogatives.

This assumption of white space drives the repeated instances of white people calling the police on people of color. Swimming pools, coffee shops, parks and golf courses were once exclusively white domains.  Though legally free to all, many white people – consciously or unconsciously – still claim those spaces.  When a person of color irritates them in any way, even by their presence, many white people feel entitled to request their removal.  When people of color walk through our neighborhoods, even if they are doing political canvassing, selling a product or delivering the newspaper, we feel justified in challenging their right to be in our space.  We often rationalize this as a concern for safety, but it is driven by a racist defense of our space.

Whether most white Americans recognize it or not, we define this country as white space, created by and for us.  While we’re irritated by the presence of blacks in our space, we know as some deep level that we brought them here against their will.  Latinos are a different situation.  They are invading our space, speaking their language, asserting their culture. The rhetoric around illegal immigration is driven by a defense of white space.  Trump says he is protecting us from MS-13 and Mexican rapists, but most of us know this isn’t the chief concern.  His recent statement that “immigrants are destroying European culture” is far more honest.  Trump rode this fear of non-white encroachment into the White House, replacing a black man who many thought did not belong there.

For many white people, the election of Barak Obama was a wake-up call.  If they had to share the “White House” with a person of color, what else would they have to share?  This was especially threatening to non-educated, working class, white men – the men who so often assume they own the sidewalk.  As in the days of Jim Crow, they were willing to accept the dregs of the American economy as long as they still felt they owned the country. Social and economic inequities within white culture were tolerated as long as they experienced countless examples of their special status as white.  For them, becoming a minority in the United States is an existential threat.

And rightly so.

This understanding of our nation must end. The United States of America is not inherently white space.  Four hundred years ago, it was solely inhabited by people of color. Two hundred years ago, large portions of the southwest were largely populated by Hispanic people.  Ironically, the space many white people are defending from invasion is space we once invaded. White people are experiencing precisely what we inflicted on others, though in a far less violent manner. We are being challenged to accept an alternate reality, where the space we inhabit it shared rather than owned.

Space is always open to renegotiation. As strident and ugly as the present tensions around immigration and race have become, they are probably necessary to this renegotiation. The days when white people could demand people of color leave a space is finally being challenged. Those who attempt this as individuals are being arrested, fired, censured and shamed. Hopefully, in the near future, those who extol this in public office will also be rejected.

More and more people of color are not standing aside on the sidewalk or in society.

This is not rude.

It is long overdue.


Why They Keep Coming

Why They Keep Coming

I haven’t posted since May.

I’ve been busy.

I’ve been living and working in rural communities in El Salvador. The organization I lead – CoCoDA – has spent the last twenty-five years working collaboratively with rural communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua on projects in water and sanitation, public health and education. In June, I visited these communities, meeting with their leaders and talking with their residents. It was both energizing and discouraging.

I am energized by seeing common people do extraordinary things. In one community, I worked for a day on an organic farm cooperative run by young people. Their leader, who was no more than 25 years old, has a vision of supplying all the vegetables for his community and the communities around them. In another community, I spoke with people who’ve worked for ten years to build a water system to bring clean water from a local spring to their homes. In a few months, they hope to finally have clean, accessible water. Again and again, I encountered people working together to improve the quality of life of their communities. I heard their dreams and hopes.

Not once did anyone say, “My greatest hope is to someday live in the United States.”

I am also discouraged. In many instances, these people asked me about what was happening in the United States.  Why did our President consider their country a “shithole?” Why were we separating children from their parents at our border? They worried about their depiction as lazy, or greedy, or criminal. I assured them that the opinions and actions of the Trump administration did not represent those of many US citizens.

I worry that I lied to them.

I’ve returned to a nation where many are more scandalized by Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave a restaurant than by children being separated from their parents. To a nation where poor Central Americans fleeing from violence are depicted as an infestation, accused of being rapists and killers. To a nation willing to pay Central American immigrants and temporary workers substandard wages for dangerous or tedious work while at the same time deriding them as a drain on the economy. To a nation that has consistently destabilized Central American governments and exploited Central American economies, creating the very conditions that provoke migration across our borders. To a nation where most people understand very little about the causes of migration.

Where I have been, everyone understands why people leave their homes and risk life and liberty to come to the United States.  It isn’t what we’ve been told.

They Are Desperate

When I talk with North Americans, I often ask, “How bad would it have to be in the United States for you to consider taking your family and illegally migrating to another country, knowing you could face death or imprisonment?” This is the situation with many of those who migrate to the United States from Mexico and Central America. Climate change has destroyed their farms. Drug cartels have targeted their children. Violence has terrorized their neighborhoods.

They do not leave happily. No one easily chooses to leave their birthplace, to abandon their home, family and friends unless the situation is dire. Though parents are derided as irresponsible for bringing their children on that perilous journey north, for many it may be the most responsible action.  What parent wouldn’t move the earth (or their location on it) to protect their children? For this reason alone, walls will always fail.  Until we help address the situations in their home countries, they will keep coming.

They Are Invited

While many Mexicans and Central Americans illegally immigrate, most do not do so haphazardly. They are invited by family and friends who have been told by US employers that, once they arrive, they will be employed. They don’t come to “take away our jobs.” They come to take jobs we won’t do.  Just as the demand of US citizens for drugs has destabilized their countries, it is the demand for employees that takes advantage of this destabilization. These people would much rather work in their home countries, but the temptation of making in one year what they can make in ten at home is alluring.

If the United States was really serious about ending illegal immigration, we could end it tomorrow.  All Congress would need to do is pass a law separating the children from the employers who hire illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, we have created a system that rewards the employers and punishes their victims.  It is this huge hypocrisy that drives immigration policy in the United States. Think about the last time you heard of an employer being arrested and convicted of exploiting illegal immigrants.

They Are Homesick

The final misconception about illegal immigration is that they come here hoping to become US citizens. Nearly all of them know that illegal immigration actually makes that goal less attainable. They come here to work and not to live. Most are sending money home to support family.  Many are using that money to build homes or start businesses at home. The goal is not to stay permanently in a country that exploits and abuses you. It is to earn enough money to make living in your home country possible.

This is the final hypocrisy of our present system. We need these workers. They are willing to work for the wages we offer.  However, instead of making it possible for them to temporarily work here, we’ve created a system that makes their presence and work illegal.  Why?  Because the easiest people to exploit are those without any legal standing or power.

They Are Victims of Political and Economic Exploitation

I am appalled by the rhetoric of the Trump Administration on illegal immigration. It is based on intentional lies. They know all the facts listed above. The reason they are targeting illegal immigrants is not to solve a problem. They do so to inflame racist and xenophobic tendencies in their voting base, to distract them from the unjust economic and tax policy that actually threaten their livelihood.

Unfortunately, many US citizens would rather believe the “fake news” spewed by this administration about migration and immigration than seriously think about the causes of this problem. Where is the outrage from Trump’s base when the Mar-A-Lago resort requests work visas for 61 foreign cooks and servers?  These are supposedly visas for “workers unavailable in the United States.”  Are none of his base willing to work these jobs?  The problem in Mar-A-Lago and across our country is not that there aren’t workers available.  It is that there aren’t enough US workers willing to fill those jobs.  Trump the businessman knows this.  Trump the president lies about it.

Oddly, while I disagree with denigration of Mexicans and Central Americans by the Trump administration, I do agree with their assertion that the system is broken and must be repaired.  Unfortunately, complicated systems are always designed to benefit someone.  In this case, our system is not designed to benefit poor Mexicans and Central Americans.  It is designed to benefit US employers and companies. Until we acknowledge and address the true source of illegal immigration, walls will accomplish nothing.  They will keep coming.

P.S. Once a year, I take a group of North Americans on an eight day visit to Central America to meet its people and understand its culture and challenges.  If you’d be interested in traveling with me in 2019, please contact me at jim@cocoda.org.

The History of My Entitlement

The History of My Entitlement

Last week, my wife and I took a walk through our middle class, white neighborhood in the cool of the evening. The streets lights were coming on as we walked and my wife remarked, “You realize it would be dangerous for Ella (who is our black daughter) to do what we’re doing right now.  First, because she is a woman and second because she is a black.”  We walked on in silence as we both struggled with the unfairness of that.  I was confronted by something of which I am usually oblivious – my entitlement as a white American man.

I was not taught to see myself this way.  A sense of entitlement was the negative characteristic of others, of the welfare queens, those black women living large off the government dime.  Growing up, I was told of able bodied black men collecting government checks, of black parents selling their food stamps for drugs and of how entitlement programs were primarily handouts for people of color.  Good, hard working white people were bankrolling their laziness and luxury.

Then, as an adult, I moved to the city and discovered the truth – no one lives large on welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.  The people I met who used these programs – most of whom were white – only used them as a last resort.  What they received was barely enough to survive.  For those with no alternative, the application for this assistance was difficult, demeaning and time consuming.  What I had been taught about entitled minorities simply wasn’t true.

For many years, I thought my teachers ill-informed.  Today, I realize – whether they knew or not – they were articulating a racist defense of their own entitlement.  They had accepted a derogatory and inflammatory narrative about black people that allowed them to think well of themselves in comparison.  Condemning these programs and the people who used them allowed white people to label people of color as greedy, lazy, dishonest and criminal.  When challenged, they could pretend their animosity was for the programs and not for people of color.

While this racist subterfuge is ugly, it is also a deflection from one of the more damning truths about American society.  American society is and has always been a program of white entitlement.  From the moment white men landed at Plymouth Rock, they have considered it their manifest destiny to possess, exploit, abuse and monopolize all that they encountered.  Indeed, there may be no more entitled group of people on the planet than white American men like me.  Consider our history…

White American men like me felt entitled to take the land from people of color who already lived on this continent.  They felt entitled to kill those who resisted them.  They felt entitled to break every treaty they signed with the native Americans.  Adding insult to injury, they justified this brutality and dishonesty by labeling these people of color as savages.

White American men like me felt entitled to own people of color.  They felt entitled to buy and sell other human beings.  They felt entitled to collecting the fruits of their back breaking labor for hundreds of years while they cultivated the myth of the American gentleman, sipping lemonade from their plantation verandas.  They felt entitled to whip, torture, rape and brutalize their slave laborers.  When slavery ended, they felt entitled to all the wealth created by those they had unjustly imprisoned and exploited.  Audaciously, the descendants of these men continue to imply black people are greedy and lazy.

White American men like me, even after the horrors of slavery, felt entitled to deference from people of color.  They felt entitled to separate and unequal social amenities and societal benefits.  They felt entitled to harm, rob or even kill those people of color who forgot their inferior station.  They felt entitled to lynch any person of color who challenged this brazen injustice.  While they did little to earn it, they felt entitled to the respect of people of color, expecting to be treated as superiors.

White American men like me felt entitled to government support for all of their endeavors.  They felt entitled to the vote, political office, land grants, farmsteads, the New Deal, the GI Bill, federally subsidized housing loans, farm subsidies and mortgage deductions.  In each and every one of these government programs, white men were the chief recipient of government largesse.  In most circumstances, the rules of qualification were intentionally designed to exclude people of color.  Ironically, after generations of advantage, it is men of my skin color who are most offended by affirmative action.

White American men like me continue to defend their entitlement.  When their injustices are challenged by people of color, they suggest they “go back to Africa” as if white people are the true native Americans.  When they see non-white countries prospering, they complain that people of color are taking away “their jobs” as if they alone are entitled to prosperity.  When people of color argue that “black lives matter, they demand that “all lives matter” as if they actually believe everyone is entitled to what they’ve possessed.  When people of color rail against wealth and income gaps, they justify their monopolies and networks by labeling those who make less as greedy, lazy and incompetent.

Sadly, most white American men like me do this almost reflexively.  Like my walk through my neighborhood, they walk through society without any recognition of all the rights and opportunities extended to them and them alone.  Indeed, at even the slightest critique, they quickly complain of injustice.  There may be nothing more absurd in our world than the white American male playing the victim.

I am ashamed of white American men like me.  As much as I want to see myself as different than the generations of white men before me, to understand their behavior as something abhorrent, I suspect we have more in common than I’d like to admit.  They are my ancestors.  I am their prodigy.  Every day I benefit from our shared privilege without any awareness, embarrassment or guilt.

How could I?

I am a white American male.

I am entitled.


When People Of Color Disagree

When People Of Color Disagree

Over the past few months, two black men – Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates – have been clashing on the internet.  West has been critical of the neo-liberal slant of Coates’ writing and taken him to task for not focusing more attention on the intersectionality of race and class.  Coates, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray, but supporters of both West and Coates have battled it out on Facebook pages, blogs and comment sections.  Seeing these two respected men of color pitted against each other has been painful for me, a white man who has found both of their writings insightful and enlightening.

As a person committed to listening carefully to marginalized voices, it is disconcerting when those voices aren’t unified or, even more bewildering, when they are in conflict.  As a person seeking direction from these figures in the fight for racial equality and justice, what does one do when the direction is contradictory?  How does one act when there are several groups of people of color in your city with different perspectives on what people of color should do and what white people should do to help?  How do you proceed when two people of color tell you that being an “ally” requires very different responses?

This, of course, isn’t a new dilemma.  In the 1960s, many white people struggled to sort out the differences in direction between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While today they are seen as complimentary figures in the fight for civil rights, in that day, they were often critical of each’s other strategies.  This division was often used by whites as evidence that the concerns of people of color could be ignored.  If they couldn’t agree on what they wanted, how could whites be expected to respond?

That was, of course, racist subterfuge designed to deflect and distract the discussion from what nearly every person of color agreed on – the prevalence and persistence of systems of racial inequity and injustice throughout American society.  While West, Coates, Malcolm and King may disagree on strategy or on how to incorporate white allies, they are strongly unified in their condemnation of systemic racism.  Those whites committed to listening to this societal critique will find plenty – personally and societally – to address without getting lost in the weeds of strategic differences.

One of the ironies of abandoning negative and monolithic stereotypes about people of color is also discovering that they are not monolithic in their sentiments concerning white people.  For some, white people are helplessly enmeshed in their personal racism and white privilege and generally do more harm than good when they attempt to help.  For others, white people – as the chief architects and perpetrators of racism – must play an active part as allies and accomplices in its dismantlement.  And, depending on the situation and the white person, the opinion of a person of color on which strategy is preferable can understandably shift.

I’ve struggled with this issue personally over the past couple of months.  In February, I developed and led a three hour workshop entitled “Paying Our Reparations” for a local church.  The workshop, based on a series of blogs I’d written, was designed to defend the reasonableness of reparations by educating white people on the long history of enslavement, economic disparity and racial discrimination in the United States.  After exposing the ignorance of most white people concerning the depth of racial injustice in America, the workshop concludes by encouraging white people to commit to personal acts of repair – “reparation.”

In creating this workshop, I took careful note of the oft repeated admonition that people of color should not be responsible for educating white people about racism and white privilege.  That can be exhausting for people of color, especially when they must repeatedly deal with white fragility, micro-aggressions and even blatant racist resistance.  This is especially true when the topic is reparations.  When people of color advocate for reparations, many white people reject their arguments out of hand, impugning their motives with charges of laziness, greed or resentment.  When a white person makes these same arguments, white people can’t ignore them as easily.

However, in promoting the workshop, I’ve also encountered people of color who’ve take some offense at the audacity of an old white man pontificating on race.  They’ve argued that either a person of color should lead or co-facilitate the workshop with me, that the workshop smacks of white appropriation and privilege.  What right do I have to speak on their behalf about the injustices they’ve endured?  Since I am committed to listening carefully to people of color, I take this critique seriously.  I can understand their suspicion of my motives.  Indeed, being suspicious of white men seems a very appropriate strategy for people of color in our culture.

In sorting through these divergent voices, I am aware that when people of color know me personally, they seem to trust my motives and support the workshop.  When people of color do not know me, they tend to distrust the project.  This would suggest a rather simple solution to the question of which voices of color we respect – all of them.  I don’t get to choose between West and Coates or King or Malcolm.  As a white person, I need to listen to them all.

Those people of color who know me represent one set of accountability partners.  They are in the best position to judge my motives and suggest appropriate responses.  I need to listen to them when they tell me to speak out, educating and challenging my white peers.  However, those people of color who do not know me are also accountability partners.  They remind me of the necessity of continually and humbly reexamining my actions and motives.  Taking offense at their challenge reveals more about my unconscious white entitlement than their suspicions.  As a white man, I am not accustomed to having my right to speak challenged.

Listening to those who question my sincerity is as important as listening to those who trust my authenticity. They remind me of my position and participation in a culture that too easily pushes them aside, marginalizes their voices and asks them to take a back seat on the bus.  To some extent, whether I am actually doing this with my workshop is irrelevant.  They remind me that everything in our society – including a workshop on reparations – has that potential.  To think myself immune to this propensity is the height of white arrogance.

In the days ahead, I’ll be looking for a person of color to co-facilitate with me.  That will need to be a strong and brave person of color with a willingness to weather the tender sensitivities of uneducated and unwoke white people.  Hearing the story of racial injustice from a person of color in conjunction with the story of white responsibility from old white man will be uncomfortable for white audiences, but discomfort is something white people need to learn to tolerate.  Until that day, I will also continue to do what people of color have told me to do, challenge my white peers on racism and white privilege.

I do not have the right to speak on behalf of people of color.

I do have the responsibility of speaking to my white peers.

In our present culture, that can sometimes be a difficult line to walk.

The Oldest Trick In The Racist Book

The Oldest Trick In The Racist Book

On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives voted to end an Obama-era action designed to address racial discrimination in the auto sales industry.  This Consumer Financial Protection Bureau guideline was designed to address and rectify the fact that people of color – even those with superior credit – pay an average of $2,500 more to purchase the same car as a white person.  An NPR interview with the architect of this dismantlement – Texas Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling – is such a classic example of racist subterfuge that I thought it worthy of careful analysis.  I’m posting the entire conversation in italics with my commentary interspersed.

DEBBIE GOLDSTEIN: They sent in white and nonwhite paired testers to the same auto dealership and found nonwhite borrowers ended up paying on average $2,500 more than a white borrower over the life of their car loan. And, of course, a car is a really vital tool for most families. It’s how you get to work. So it’s something that you really need, but that you might be paying for more just because of the color of your skin and the arrangement you got for your financing.

– You can read the entire National Fair Housing Alliance report here.

GREENE: Now, Congressman Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, saw this study but was not convinced.

JEB HENSARLING: Yeah. I looked at those findings. Did you know that was based on a universe of two people? So this is, at best, junk science. But also, the Bureau’s rule predated this study. So the rule was not even based upon the faulty study. And so it is frankly unfair, it is unjust and it never should have happened in the first place.

– First, the study is not junk science and passed peer review.  The two people referenced were the black and white people sent into each dealership, who each sought to purchase the same vehicle with very different results.  This is a not a flaw in the study, but the proper methodology.  In addition, Hensarling quickly turns the study on its head and suggests the study – rather than the racial discrimination it exposes – is unjust.  According to Hensarling, it is the auto dealerships that are being mistreated and must be protected.

GREENE: So you dispute the notion that discrimination exists in the lending process?

HENSARLING: No. I didn’t say that.

– Of course, not.  That would be ridiculous since Hensarling knows this study is one of hundreds that demonstrate racial bias in nearly every aspect of our society.


– Great question.

HENSARLING: I said it’s very serious, and it needs to be proven.

– So Hensarling acknowledges the existence of racial discrimination and its seriousness, but asserts it needs to be proven.  If you find this response completely incomprehensible, you’re not alone.  The interviewer obviously can’t make heads or tails of it either.

GREENE: But let me just – I do want to mention that there was a Vanderbilt University study, as well, from 2006 that suggested there was discrimination in this process. But I mean, you clearly don’t – you’ve not seen enough evidence yet to convince you that this is a problem.

– No, he already said a problem exists and it is serious.  This has nothing to do with science or evidence.  He is disinterested in changing a system with clear racial bias.

HENSARLING: Well, what I believe is that it is actionable. But if you look at the internal documents of the Bureau, they knew their evidence was shaky, and they were trying to press the envelope and they hurt consumers by doing so.

– So now Hensarling is protecting both consumers and auto dealerships from these nasty guidelines intended to protect the civil rights of people of color.  He is the champion of the people, if you define the people as white people.

GREENE: Hurt consumers.

– I’m not certain if this is a question or an expression of her shock at the absurdity of this argument.

GREENE: Yeah. One of the Republican arguments here is that this guidance from the Obama administration made lenders afraid to offer discounts to anyone, regardless of race. And I asked Debbie Goldstein about that.

GOLDSTEIN: It’s not clear they are offering discounts to people of color. It seems like they’re offering discounts in a biased way to white borrowers. And I think here government policy should be aimed at rooting out discrimination, first and foremost.

GREENE: What do you tell a member of Congress who has voted or is voting to scrap these rules, and they say they clearly are not effective in terms of reducing this discrimination, they’re an extra burden on lenders so let’s scrap these and find a better way to enforce the law that’s already there?

– I would tell a Republican member of Congress that they obviously have no interest in remedying this situation.  Does anyone really believe the Republicans are upset because these guidelines were not sufficiently and effectively reducing discrimination?  Is anyone really holding their breath while they craft a better set of guidelines?  If so, take a big breath.   Hensarling is about to finish his racist subterfuge with the oldest trick in the racist book.

GOLDSTEIN: I think that the message that Congress is sending when they overturn the guidance is that they don’t think discrimination is a problem and that the auto lending industry should be permitted to do what it wants.

GREENE: Republican Congressman Jeb Hensarling said that’s not the message at all. He says he takes charges of discrimination very seriously but that what he sees as government overreach is not the answer.

HENSARLING: Where you have a specific dealer, a specific auto dealer engaged in reprehensible, racist, illegal, unlawful conduct, that needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities. But don’t just willy-nilly make the accusation against an entire industry. That’s outrageous.

– Oh, I think we all know what is outrageous.  It is outrageous that in 2018 a white politician is still using one of the oldest tricks in the racist book – imply any evidence of racism is an individual aberration and not a systemic problem.  This subterfuge has been used by generations of racists arguing for inaction in the face of blatant and pervasive systemic racism.  What Hensarling says in defense of automobile dealers echoes a long litany of reprehensible and racist rhetoric.

In the 1850s, they said of slave owners, “Where you have a specific slave owner engaged in reprehensible, illegal, unlawful conduct, that needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.  But don’t just willy-nilly make the accusation against an entire class of gentleman farmers.”  Subtext: Most slave owners are wonderful Americans.”

In the 1890s, they said of the KKK, “Where you have a specific KKK member engaged in reprehensible, illegal, unlawful conduct, that needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.  But don’t just willy-nilly make the accusation against an entire organization.”  Subtext: Belonging to the KKK is perfectly fine.

In the 1920s, they said of lynching, “Where you have a specific lynch mob leader engaged in reprehensible, illegal, unlawful conduct, that needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.  But don’t just willy-nilly make the accusation against an entire community.”  Subtext: Ignoring, attending and applauding a lynching is defensible.

In the 1950s, they said of Jim Crow “Where you have a specific white person engaged in reprehensible, racist, illegal, unlawful conduct, that needs to be brought to the attention of the proper authorities.  But don’t just willy-nilly make the accusation against an entire society.”  Subtext: We have no intention of addressing systemic racism even when we know it is problematic, serious and proven.

Oddly, as an alleged champion of individual responsibility, Mr. Hensarling doesn’t call for charges against the eight individual auto dealerships exposed by the study as behaving in reprehensible, racist, illegal, unlawful conduct in their selling of cars.  Of course, in this, Mr. Hensarling is in good company.  Not only are racist politicians like himself unwilling to address systemic racism, they aren’t even interested in eliminating the “rare” instances of reprehensible, racist, illegal, unlawful conduct they acknowledge.

One piece of evidence is clear.  Mr. Hensarling and his Republican allies are working to sustain the systemic privileges of white power and entitlement, protecting the right of white people to purchase cars at a $2,500 discount.

In 2018, that truly is outrageous.

The Culture of Whiteness

The Culture of Whiteness

Note to my white self…

You were born into whiteness.

This is quite different than being born with white skin.  There is nothing intrinsically negative about any skin pigment.  All children arrive in the world as culturally empty slates.  The assumptions and prejudices around skin pigment have to be carefully taught by those in power.  In the United States, those in power have always been white.  The lessons they’ve taught are intended to maintain and defend this concentration of power.

You were taught people who look like you are superior.

This is why it is so difficult for you to see your attitudes, opinions and actions as racist.  Whiteness has been constantly presented to you (and to the people of color around you) as pristine and preferable. You were taught that white is the color of purity, even though this is not inherently true. For nearly a billion Indians, red is the color of purity.  In China, white signifies death.  Connecting the color of white with goodness is a cultural decision.  At a deep level, you were taught whiteness is good and people of others skin pigments are less worthy.

You were taught people who look like you are normative.

This is obviously not the case.  People with white skin pigment are a minority in the world.  However, as a child born in the United States, you were taught to see white people as the rightful majority rather than a demographic anomaly.  According to this mythology, white power in the United States was not the result of the systematic suppression and oppression of people of color.  White power was a God ordained blessing bestowed on favored children or the well-earned reward of a superior group of people.  This narrative makes it easier for you to ignore the inequities and injustices from which you benefit.

You were taught to justify your privilege as a white person.

Whiteness, since it is a human ideology based on false assumptions and prejudice, must be constantly rationalized and maintained. Reality inevitably challenges the premises of whiteness.  When you meet an incredibly brilliant or compassionate person of color, your assumption of intellectual and moral superiority is shattered.  When you engage with the wider world, you discover whiteness is only normative in Hollywood, Wall Street and Seventh Avenue.  Therefore, essential to the sustainability of whiteness is its defense.

You were taught to defend whiteness by denying racism, diminishing the perspectives of people of color and deflecting criticism by attacking those who refuse to relent.

This is almost reflexive in you.  Take the example of an unarmed black man being shot by the police.  Even if you are aware of our biases, you still have to overcome your indoctrination.  Your first thought will probably be a suspicion that the black man did something to deserve to be shot.  You (and police officers) have been taught black men are criminal and violent.  If the police officer was white, you will assume he was not acting out of any prejudice. In situation after situation, your first inclination will always be to deny any racial animosity or dynamic.  Since white people are good, the fault must lie with the person of color.

You cannot allow other narratives about whiteness to prevail.

You will feel compelled to diminish the perspectives of people of color.  When video evidence makes it nearly impossible to deny the role of racial prejudice in an incident, you will tend to focus on any information that diminishes white culpability.  You will note the alleged moral failings of the black man while asking that the white officer be given the benefit of the doubt.  You will imply the black person provoked the situation.  You will disregard the stories of other people of color who’ve been pulled over by the police for the slightest cause.  Since whiteness is normative, you will refuse to accept that your experience with police is not everyone’s experience.

You must defend whiteness at all costs.

Your final response, should denial and diminishment fail, will be to deflect the criticism.  You will offer statistics suggesting these racially motivated shootings by police are rare.  You will imply the incident is being politicized.  You will find an instance where a white person was mistreated (preferably by a black police officer) and argue that such abuses can happen to anyone.  If all else fails, you will accuse the critics of being racially motivated.  They are the racists.   You will “back the blue” even when it is whiteness you’re defending.

This is the culture of whiteness.

While you were not born with it, you were indoctrinated into it.  Being aware of this indoctrination, while important, does not immediately free you from its power.  When your whiteness is challenged, you will often find yourself reflexively denying, diminishing and deflecting.  These responses are ingrained and difficult to discard.  With practice, you will identify these reflexive responses more quickly and be able to acknowledge their ugliness, but this may take years.  With more awareness, you will see these responses more clearly in other white people and in the larger culture, but your awareness will always be clouded.  People of color will continue to point out prejudices you cannot see.  Gradually, if you are vigilant, the power of this indoctrination will weaken.

You will always be white.

There is no shame in the pigment of your skin.  It is your active or passive participation in a culture of whiteness that is problematic. Once you become aware of this indoctrination and its negative impact on yourself and the lives of people of color, you become responsible for moving from participation to opposition.  You will always struggle with the remnants of your indoctrination.  You will always need to listen to people of color.  But, if you willing to work at it, you can be free of the need to deny, diminish or deflect.

You can be free at last.

Avoiding the “L” Word

Avoiding the “L” Word

This past Thursday, the long anticipated National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama.  Visually stunning and emotionally provocative, the memorial has received accolades for its architecture and messaging.  Thousands attended its opening with dignitaries proclaiming its relevance.  While I share these sentiments, I am disturbed that unless you’ve been paying attention, you probably have no idea what the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates.

Ironically, its ambiguous title perfectly illustrates one of a deep moral failings in American society – our inability to honestly address the history of lynching in the United States.  The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built to memorialize – by name – the 4400+ people of color who were publicly lynched by white people between 1877 and 1981. It is intended to draw attention to the socially sanctioned practice of periodically lynching a person of color as an act of terror.  It exposes lynching for what it was – a communal event whereby white families enculturated white supremacy into their children and black families were taught what they could expect if they challenged the status quo in any way.

Indeed, this omnipresent threat continues to inhibit people of color.  They know better than to call the memorial what it is –  “the Lynching Memorial.”  In order to assuage the sensibilities of fragile white people, even the memorial to the victims of lynching must avoid the “L” word.  It is a memorial to peace and justice, allowing white people to once again obscure a truth we cannot acknowledge. Lynching was not the aberrant behavior of a few white supremacists. Public lynching attracted thousands of white Americans and their families dressed in their Sunday best with a picnic basket.  Lynching was as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.  No wonder white people react so poorly to any reminder of this heinous history.  Nothing threatens our nostalgic American mythology as much as the stories of a lynching.

Consider the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith on August 7th, 1930 in the town of Marion in my own state of Indiana.  Shipp, Smith and a sixteen year old by the name of James Cameron had been arrested and jailed for the murder of a local white man, Claude Deeter.  However, when Deeter’s girlfriend, Mary Ball, accused the men of raping her, (falsely as it turned out), all hell broke loose.  Ten to fifteen thousand white men and women descended on the jail, broke down its doors with sledgehammers and brutally beat the three men.  When Abram Smith resisted the noose, the crowd stabbed him repeatedly and broke both of his arms.  While Cameron eventually escaped the crowd, Shipp and Smith were hung from a tree on the courthouse grounds while local police and officials looked on.  Though photographic evidence identified many of the lynching perpetrators, not a single person was ever arrested or charged for the murder of the two men.

Sadly, this lynching mirrors countless others in the United States.  The purpose of these acts had nothing to do with peace or justice.  They were acts of intimidation and humiliation.  It was not unusual for the bodies of the lynched persons to be mutilated, dismembered and burned.  Sometimes the bodies were allowed to hang publicly for several days.  On other occasions, the bodies were drug through the streets behind horses or cars and eventually left in the middle of the town’s black neighborhood.  Lynchings were often accompanied by random acts of violence on other blacks and the destruction of black businesses and  homes in race riots.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1960s that people of color gained the right to riot.  For the first two hundred years of American history, race riots were always perpetrated by white mobs.

This is the reality that the National Memorial for Peace and Justice appropriately, but insufficiently, communicates through stone, wood and names.  This is the reality that white people consistently deny, diminish or deflect.  In Marion, Indiana, the town did not attempt to address their lynching until 2003, when a group of black and white pastors proposed the placing of a plaque memorializing the death of Shipp and Smith on the grounds of the courthouse.  Unfortunately, the plaque was more designed to placate white people than to acknowledge past injustice.  It read…

“As citizens of Marion, Grant County, Indiana, we acknowledge that hatred, violence and bigotry have scarred this community.  We confess that this legacy touches all of us.  We both seek and offer forgiveness.  We commit ourselves to the pursuit of healing, unity and peace.  We declare this day of reconciliation to be the first step toward a bright and prosperous future for the people of this community.”

There was no mention of Shipp and Smith.  There was no mention of the “L” word.  The plaque, oddly, suggested both white and black people needed to “seek and offer forgiveness.”  Those who didn’t know of the plaque’s origins would have no idea it commemorated the murder of two black men by the white citizenry of the city of Marion.  Yet this plaque was ultimately rejected by the city commissioners as being too divisive.  The Commission President argued, “I personally believe this is the wrong time to put up a plaque.”  She did not suggest when a good time might be.

Apparently, that time is still in the future.  This past year, my friend, Phil Gulley spoke at an event in Grant County, Indiana.  His remarks, as is his habit, included a call for racial reconciliation.  Afterwards, in a small group discussion, he asked the group, which was made up entirely of white people, whether there was a memorial commemorating the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.  After a prolonged silence, one person answered, “That was an unfortunate event we’d prefer to forget.”

Though no single sentence better describes the attitude of white Americans concerning our heinous history, the language around lynching is seldom accurate.  It was not an unfortunate event.  It was a carefully orchestrated act of racial terrorism supported by the vast majority of the white citizens of Marion, Indiana.  That cannot and should not be forgotten.  Acknowledgment is the first step toward a bright and prosperous future for the people of Marion, Indiana and of the United States of America.  Let us hope the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is not seen as the end of a discussion, but as its beginning.