Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

Misunderstanding My Black Friendships

My first encounter with a black person was at the age of 14 when I entered high school.  Up until then – while it probably occurred – I have no memory of meeting a black person.  In 1974, when I was a freshman in high school, our town – like many in rural America then and now – was nearly 100% white.  Our high school had a single black student – Michael Johnson – whose name I remember precisely because he was unique.

This is what I remember about Michael.  He was a good basketball player, one of the stars of our team.  He was quiet, polite, neatly dressed and always smiling.  If I ever said anything other than “hello” to Michael, I don’t recall.  Indeed, I don’t remember anyone at our school ever saying much to Michael other than “hello” and “good game.”  When we graduated, I have no idea what became of Michael.  Indeed, I haven’t thought much about him until recently.

This week, I was trying to determine when I first had a black friend.  I was acquainted with a few black students at college, but with no one I would call friend.  I interacted more closely with a couple of black peers in grad school, but mostly in the classroom.  I eventually made a couple of closer friendships in my early 30’s through our church, where a few black folk attended.  I would have called Rick my first close black friend.  He and I had lunch periodically, attended movies and worked on church projects together. His family had dinner at our home.

Looking back, Rick and I never spoke about racism.  I never asked him about his experiences as a black man in America.  I treated him as if he wasn’t black, as if the color of skin was irrelevant to our relationship, even while thinking our friendship proof of my enlightenment.  I was proud of having such a close black friend.  Rick was humble, generous, funny and always smiling.

Always smiling.

Over the last few years, I have finally developed a few genuine relationships with black men and women.  These are relationships in which we talk about race.  Sometimes they allow me to see and hear their rage, sadness, frustration and even their suspicion of me.  They challenge me about my words, attitudes and actions.  They have helped me understand something I never understood – I never really knew Rick.

Michael and Rick were black people operating in largely white environments where it wasn’t wise or safe for them to reveal their true personality.  Michael may have been quiet, polite and happy, but I suspect that behavior was more expediency than transparency.  I wonder what he was like when he attended his family reunion.  Rick may have been humble, generous, and funny, but I suspect he’d also learned how to make white people like me comfortable.

Eventually, Rick and I drifted apart.  Looking back, I worry much of that growing distance was about my discomfort.  I remember thinking and saying that Rick had changed.  Did he really change or did I finally see the more authentic Rick and find that less palatable?

When we talk about the racial divide in America, we need to understand how few genuine relationships between black and white people actually exist.  A recent study found 80% of white Americans do not have a significant relationship with a person of color.  In the rural towns where I grew up, the figure was 100%.  But, even in urban settings, our neighborhoods, schools, parks, churches and social institutions are largely segregated.  There are few genuinely organic opportunities for black and white people to become friends.

This leaves many white people open to a gross misunderstanding.  Most of our encounters with black people are on “white turf” where black people present not as they are, but as they know we wish them to be – quiet, polite, humble, generous and always smiling.  Paradoxically, most of our encounters with black people from a distance – through media or external observation – are of black people who are loud, assertive, self-possessed, proud and sometimes angry.  What we don’t understand is many of those black people are the same people.  It never occurs to us that black people are as emotionally complex as white people.

We misunderstand because – when it comes to race – we’ve never had to present two versions of ourselves to the world.  We are free to be our white selves in each and every situation and encounter.  This white privilege means I can present my true self to the police officer, to the judge, to my teacher, to my employer and to my friends without fear of consequence.  I can be my white self when I encounter black people, aware that if anyone is going to have to adjust their behavior, it will not be me.  They must make me comfortable.

This reality is central to our present racial divides.  Those black people who bravely present as themselves often face censure, threat and attack.  Therefore, most black people continue to operate in two worlds, of which only one allows them to be genuine.  Many black people allow us to think we’re friends, presenting whatever they think we need to be comfortable.  In the present racial climate, though sad, that is a time tested strategy for survival.

While I am convinced cross-racial friendships are essential to changing our society, I am aware of who bears the most risk in that work. I deeply appreciate the black men and women who have befriended me in recent years.  I no longer see them as evidence of my enlightenment.  I see them as courageous in their trust of me.  I am also thankful for their willingness to make me uncomfortable.

They don’t always smile at me.

 

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The Message Of A Touch

The Message Of A Touch

When my African American daughter was a toddler, I was amazed by how often white men and women would walk up to us and – without asking permission – touch her hair. It happened nearly every time we went out in public. When I spoke to my black friends about this odd pattern, they laughed and explained how often this happens to black people – children and adults.  More importantly, they helped me understand its roots, that at its core, this behavior represented white people’s privileged assumption that they could violate the personal space of a black person without permission or consequence.

When I spoke of this with white friends, they were always dismissive. I was accused of making a big deal about nothing. Shouldn’t I be glad that white people were responding to my daughter with interest and even affection? Why did I have to imply it was something more sinister? They refused to see this “innocent” behavior as problematic or indicative of deeper issues around privilege, racism, autonomy and respect.  Couldn’t it just be a case of natural human curiosity?

I considered that possibility.  One white woman told me of how people in Africa had wanted to touch her hair the first time she visited there.  She hadn’t found that offensive.  Of course, that argument pretends we live in a nation where black people are an unusual oddity that provokes white curiosity.  That is not the nation we live in.  We live in a nation where white people have owned black people and been able to violate their personal space at the slightest whim.  In that nation, the obvious explanation for white behavior is not curiosity, but racism and privilege.

This past week, as I’ve read the responses of white men and women to the criticism of Joe Biden’s habit of invading the personal space of the women he encountered, I’ve seen many parallels to those conversations about white people touching my daughter’s hair. Instead of hearing the genuine concern of some about questions of consent and male privilege, many are defending Joe’s behavior as “innocent” and “old school.”  Joe was just being nice.  According to these voices, the women Joe touched should be honored that such a famous man acknowledged them. Those who voice discomfort at these microaggressions are making a “big deal about nothing.”

Sigh.

Microaggressions are by their very nature “micro,” but they are small hints of something much more insidious. We don’t identify microaggressions because “they” are the issue, but because they point to something deeper and far more problematic. What Joe Biden does is NOT the equivalent of sexual harassment and assault, but IT IS the foundational assumption that makes harassment and assault so pervasive. As infamously articulated by our President, “you can grab them by the P***y and they just let you.” In our society, many men assume they do not have to ask in order to touch a woman.

What is maddening to the recipients of these microaggressions is that they often come from those who vocalize their opposition to racism and sexism.  Many demonstrate a willingness to “stand with the oppressed” until they are challenged for consciously or unconsciously participating in that systemic oppression.  Then they retreat into excuses, half apologies, mockery and feigned indignation.  “After all I’ve done for you and your cause, you accuse me!”

Joe Biden is only the latest poster child of this response.  Unfortunately, his recent spat of jokes about “how he asked permission” to touch someone suggest he really doesn’t get the deeper import of his behavior.  That he’s thinks “asking consent” is humorous suggests he doesn’t yet understand why these discussions are so important.

What Joe Biden and many others miss is that that personal autonomy and consent are not “minor” issues. They are at the heart of some of the deepest systemic inequities in our society.  We cannot hope to end racism and sexism in our society by ignoring microaggressions.  They are symptoms.  Taking these symptoms – large and small – seriously is absolutely vital if we ever hope to cure the disease.

A society where every person asks before intruding into the personal space of another is not some liberal silliness.  Adopting this standard might be the single most important step in ending racism, sexism, violence and a myriad of other human dysfunctions.  How we touch one another may be the clearest message of how we see the world.  Those who cannot acknowledge this demonstrate how deeply embedded they are in maintaining the the inequities of the status quo.

Potholes and Privilege

Potholes and Privilege

I’m tired of white, suburban people complaining about the potholes in Indianapolis.

Not because potholes aren’t a problem.  After two months of freeze and thaw, many Indianapolis streets are rutted with bone jolting potholes that can destroy a tire and ruin a car’s alignment.  I, too, wish that the city would repair these streets, but my frustration is with the inability of many white people to see the obvious – potholes are evidence of white privilege.

Indeed, the people complaining about potholes are almost always white commuters.  They drive in each day from suburban, white enclaves to work or play in Indianapolis.  They use roads they do not pay taxes to maintain.  They speed through neighborhoods of color where many cannot afford to own vehicles.  They drive big SUVs that damage the very roads they complain about.  Each night, they return to their communities of privilege.

They often say, “I’m always relieved when I finally drive out of the city and onto good roads.” They never acknowledge that “good” roads along with “good” schools, “good” neighborhoods and “good” parks are almost always roads, schools, neighborhoods and parks for white people.  Indeed, we live in a society where “good” is too often synonymous with white.  Sadly, the number of potholes on a given street is a fairly accurate indication of how many people of color live on that street.

Recently, I had to drive from the center of Indianapolis into the suburbs.  My journey began on West 10th Street in a largely black neighborhood and ended on W. 86th Street in an upper middle class white enclave.  As I drove north, I noticed the streets becoming less and less broken.  Indeed, on 86th Street, I no longer worried about potholes.  I was driving on smooth, privileged roads.  As I drove back into the city that night, I had to become more and more vigilant for potholes.

Vigilance is the opposite of white privilege.  The privileged person can navigate both streets and life without much concern.  They can expect their path to be smooth and obstacles to be removed.  When they complain, their complaints will be taken seriously and quickly addressed.  In contrast, the person of color must navigate both streets and life with careful vigilance, never certain where the potholes will be.  They can expect the way to be difficult and sometimes impassible.  They know their complaints will be ignored.  Indeed, they will be blamed for the injustices they encounter.

One of my white friends asked, “Why can’t Indianapolis maintain its streets?”  He asked his question as if the deficiency was with the city and its people, as if he played no role in the condition of the very streets he uses every day.  There was no acknowledgment that these streets were built over a hundred years ago, that the maintenance of these streets is much more expensive than those in his neighborhood, that the streets in his community aren’t used daily by people who don’t live in that community, that he never contributes to the costs of repairing these streets, and that “Indianapolis” is really code for “people of color” in his complaint.

One of the privileges of being white is the privilege of critiquing your victims. The main reason the streets of Indianapolis are so potholed is because sixty years ago racist white people fled in mass to the suburban counties to build new homes, streets, businesses and parks in white enclaves.  They left economically struggling families of color with their old houses, old streets, old businesses and old parks.  The potholed streets are the streets they discarded.

For this reason, their complaints ring hollow and their pride in their streets is unjust. They act as if their good suburban streets were built the same year, deal with the same traffic and have the same resources for maintenance as those potholed city streets.  They pretend their privileged streets are indicators of their moral superiority.  They brag that they take care of their streets.

That, of course, is not community pride.  It is racist bullshit.

This is problem with white privilege.  It allows us to justify inequity, to ignore injustice, to blame our victims and to sustain the pretense of moral superiority.  If we can to that with potholes, can you imagine what we do on more important issues?

As with most things in our society, we who are white have a choice.  The next time we hit a pothole we can complain of that street and its inhabitants or we can examine our role and responsibility in the condition of those streets.  Maybe if we can learn to do that with potholes, we can eventually graduate to examining the privilege in our schools, neighborhoods, businesses and parks.

At the very least, maybe we can use hitting potholes as a moment to reflect on our white privilege.

The Faces of White Supremacy

The Faces of White Supremacy

Once a year, the Indianapolis Monthly publishes a magazine supplement on racism in our city.  Each year, it graphically exposes white power and privilege in central Indiana.  Though this may sound admirable and courageous, it is not.  Indeed, I doubt the magazine has any idea that their “Faces of Indy” supplement is a compelling argument for white supremacy.

According to its introduction, the Faces of Indy supplement is forty pages of head shots and group photos of “our neighbors and community.”  Unfortunately, if you used the Faces of Indy as a snapshot of our city, you’d come to some racially inaccurate conclusions about our demographics.  Of the 311 faces in the supplement, only eighteen are black and eight of those are on a single page celebrating a social service organization.  In other words, in a city where 28% of the population is black, less than 6% of the pictures are of black men and women.

Sadly, while the Faces of Indy supplement is demographically false, it is sociologically accurate.  White people do control the levers of wealth and power in the city of Indianapolis.  For example, page seven celebrates the faces of wealth management with thirteen faces of white men and women.  The faces of financial services on page thirty-two are all white.  There are forty-one faces of neurosurgery in Indianapolis, of which only one is black.

Some might argue these disparities represent social, economic and educational differences rather than racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the photos demonstrate a much bleaker racial landscape.  For example, page ten celebrates the faces of stone cutting – hardly a high status profession – with forty-two faces, of which only two are black.  The faces of catering are eleven white men and women.

In fairness to the magazine, this supplement is basically an advertising piece in which people “earn” their notoriety by purchasing a page.  However, by presenting it as the faces of Indy, the editorial staff is perpetuating what the supplement implies – white people are “our neighbors and community” and black people are invisible and inconsequential.  Whether this is intentional or not is irrelevant, such journalism is indefensible, though some will try.  Indeed, whites often argue the absence of black faces is the fault of black people.

Consider the single black neurosurgeon.  While exact statistics are difficult to find, the number of black neurosurgeons in the US is estimated at less than 2%, of which only 9 are black females.  Why is this the case?  Many whites would argue neurosurgeons are carefully vetted and screened based and aptitude and intelligence, that we want only “the best and brightest” working in this highly skilled and honored occupation.  According to this racist trope, the absence of black neurosurgeons is evidence of black inferiority – blacks are simply not intelligent enough for this prestigious occupation.

However, our present system of recruiting, training and elevating neurosurgeons does not give us the “best and the brightest.”  If we assume – which I do – that the same percentage of black men and women have the intelligence necessary to excel in neurosurgery as in the white population, we should expect 12% percent of all neurosurgeons to be black.  Since they are not proportionally represented, we should also assume the over representation of white neurosurgeons means our present neurosurgeons are not the best and the brightest.  They are the whitest.   The criteria for who we allow to operate on our brains is partially skin color.

Ironically, white supremacy creates an inferior society, one in which many white people gain undeserved positions of power and influence at the expense of black people who, if the given equal opportunity, could contribute more to our society.  While white people often wax poetic about American meritocracy, in actuality, we’ve created a system where the merits of a black person are often ignored, consciously and unconsciously.  Indeed, those occupations where black faces abound are as damning as those where they are absent.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the following list represents where blacks are significantly over represented – 30% or more – in an occupation:

  • Bus drivers (30%)
  • Barbers (31%)
  • Postal workers (34%)
  • Home health care providers (35%)
  • NBA and NFL players (71%)
  • Bestselling musical artists (81%)

In other words, in a white supremacist society, black people are allowed to entertain us, drive us, cut our hair, deliver our mail and wipe our butts.  The abundance of black faces in these occupations represents our continued desire for black people to serve white people, even if this is to the detriment of our society.  After all, a few of these bus drivers, barbers, postal workers and entertainers may be the neurosurgeons we’re missing.

In contrast, the following list represents where blacks are significantly underrepresented – 5% or less – in an occupation:

  • Farm owners (1%)
  • Aircraft pilots (3%)
  • Construction managers (3%)
  • Architects (4%)
  • Lawyers (5%)
  • Millwrights (5%)

In other words, white people dominate our land, our skies, what our society builds and designs, our legal systems and even the most prestigious positions – millwrighting – on our factory floors.  The absence of black faces in these occupations is not accidental.  It is how we maintain white supremacy.

When I handed the Faces of Indy supplement to my daughter and asked her to leaf through it and tell me what she thought, it took her all of ten seconds to reply, “There are no people like me.”  For that reason alone, the Faces of Indy – regardless of the editor’s intent – is a white supremacist propaganda piece.  That is does so in such a subtle manner makes it even more inexcusable.  When a KKK publication demonizes black faces, both black and white people join in condemnation.  When a respected magazine ignores black faces, white people are oblivious and black people are reminded once again of their powerlessness, invisibility, and insignificance in our community.

Next year, I am going to purchase a page in the Faces of Indy.  I am going to find a company or organization with all black faces.  I’m going ask the Indianapolis Monthly to list them as the Faces of Racial Equity.  I do not expect the magazine to take my money or publish that page.

Unfortunately, magazine and newspaper editors – 98% white – are another of the occupations that white supremacy controls.

Ugly White History Month

Ugly White History Month

Note to my white self…

Black History Month isn’t primarily for black people.

They know most of their history, of the myriad of ways they were exploited and oppressed by white people and systems over the past 400 years.  They know their heroes, of those who overcame slavery and discrimination to excel and succeed.  When you attend a Black History Month event, the black people aren’t the ones being educated.  They’re the ones nodding their heads in remembrance of the historic events or individuals being mentioned.  You are the ignorant one.

Some white people complain there should be a White History Month.  While the common response to this complaint – that the other eleven months are largely white history – is valid; it misses an important point.  Black history is always white history.  For every story of a black man or woman who succeeded, there are several subplots about the white individuals and systems they had to overcome.  For every historic event that negatively impacted black people, there is a parallel history of white racism, hate and injustice. I know you don’t like to think about this, but Black History Month could just as easily be titled, Ugly White History Month.

Consider the last lynching in Indiana, an event sometimes mentioned during Black History Month.  This lynching took place in Marion, Indiana on August 7th, 1930.  During Black History Month, the deaths of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith are often remembered and mourned.  However, this event is not solely about two black men.  It is also a story about a dozen white men who participated in their torture and lynching.  It is about the thousands of white Marion residents who are said to have attended and watched the ugliness. Sadly, in making this lynching a Black History story, we’ve allowed white people to pretend this isn’t part of our history.  Indeed, to this day, blacks in Marion, Indiana have been unable to get even a historic plaque acknowledging the events of 1930.

White history has been whitewashed.

People of color know white history is less history and more propaganda. It is false narrative about the American story, intended to ennoble white people and obscure people of color. Until very recently, most white history selectively celebrated white achievement while ignoring how often those accomplishments involved massacring Native American families, whipping black backs, exploiting Chinese workers and Latino immigrants. It is disturbing that President Trump has a picture of President Andrew Jackson, who initiated the Trail of Tears in order to free land for industrial slavery, in the Oval Office.  That most white Americans don’t realize why that might be offensive to people of color is telling.

Black History Month is primarily for white people.

Even most progressive white people don’t understand this.  Progressives may not complain about Black History Month, but we ignore it.  We consider our support of such a month as proof of our tolerance and enlightenment.  Look at us.  We’ve created a whole month for black people to be center stage, even if it is a performance we don’t plan to attend.  Unfortunately, this attitude makes Black History Month into a ghetto, a place for black people to exist and interact out of white sight and mind.

You know this is true. When you’ve attended Black History events this month, you’ve looked around. You’ve counted the white faces present; often on one hand.  Where are all those who give lip service to supporting black people and their causes?  Where are those who think Black Lives Matter?  One of the ways to prove that is to value their history and to confront the uglier side of your own.

Maybe that’s the problem. We are still uncomfortable with hearing the ugliness of white history, especially in the presence of those who’ve experienced this ugliness.  We, if we are supportive, are more interested in supporting black people from afar than interacting with them face to face.  To attend a Black History event is to be in the minority, to be confronted with black nobility and white savagery, to be the ignorant one and to become incredibly aware of the whiteness of our skin.  Our hostility toward or absence from Black History Month is simply more evidence of how deeply racism is embedded in the white psyche.

You can do better. You can make Black History a priority and not just for a single month. You can make understanding our shared history a commitment. You can do so with the understanding that the black people at Black History events do not see you as one of the villains.  They see your presence as a sign of hope.  If enough white people finally know our ugly history, maybe we won’t repeat it.  Maybe the story of black people today can be different than of those in the past.

Black History Month isn’t primarily about the past.

It is one means to a different future.

One Person, No Vote

One Person, No Vote

Recently, a friend who works in college administration told me a disturbing story.  His office had been assigned the often difficult task of assisting college students in voting.  This can be complicated in conservative states with strict ID laws, early registration limitations and residency requirements.  In his state, all voters were required to have a mailing address, which can be a challenge for students living in dorms.  Like with the Native Americans in North Dakota, a P.O. Box was not acceptable.

In response, my friend’s college – in a solution given by the State’s Election Board – had assigned every dorm student an actual mailing address even though their mail came through a central P.O.Box.  However, when my friend arrived at his local clerk’s office a few days before the registration deadline with over 200 registrations, the Republican clerk announced that both the street address and the P.O. Box must be listed.  My friend replied this would be no problem and asked for the registrations back so he could make the corrections.  To which the clerk announced, “It is illegal for me to return these to you.  They’ll just have to be destroyed.”  Fortunately, my friend immediately contacted the State’s Election Board and eventually resolved the situation in a manner that allowed those students to vote.

I tell this story to illustrate one of the most under investigated problems in the United States – voter suppression.  Indeed, I have been amazed at how often, in the past few years, the media and political pundits have analyzed the election of Donald Trump and other disturbing voting patterns with little reference to intentional vote suppression.  This negligence is especially disturbing after reading Carol Anderson’s recent book, “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.”

In her book, Anderson offers a thorough and well documented survey of voter suppression past and present.  She demonstrates how voter participation, especially by minorities, has recently been attacked in manners reminiscent of Jim Crow voting laws.  She also highlights how the transformation of one of our political parties – the Republican Party – into a white dominated and focused organization has brought racism and white supremacist sentiments into nearly all voter legislation and practice.  In many ways, the Republican party of 2019 has become an ugly replica of the Democratic Jim Crow party of 1950.  This unholy alliance – then and now – between political party and racism casts suspicions on election integrity.  In other words, did the Republican clerk dispute my friend’s college registrations in defense of electoral integrity or because he knew many of those college registrants were minority voters?

While in theory, every US citizen above the age of 18 has the right to vote; in practice, access to voting rights has been increasingly impaired by both legislative obstacles and bureaucratic devices, most of which have been introduced and championed by Republicans.  Under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, laws have been passed and voting rolls have been purged with an inordinate impact on minorities, but a debilitating impact on all lower income Americans.  Indeed, the Electoral Integrity Project, in a recent report found that 2016 elections in North Carolina did not meet the same benchmarks and measurements used to measure free elections in other nations.  They found many of the same electoral corruptions they had identified in recent elections in Iran and Venezuela.

This, of course, is not a new situation in the United States.  For most of the 20th century, US law and practice was intentionally designed to limit voting rights, targeting both women and minorities.  Prior to the Civil Rights movement, a series of Jim Crow laws allowed many states to severely limit black registration and voting.  According to Anderson’s research, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black registration in southern states was limited to about 10-20% of the black population.  After the VRA, minority registration soared to a record 62% within five years and continued to grow slowly thereafter.  It can be argued that, when it comes to voting, the United States only became fully democratic in the 1960s.  Until the VRA, the United States had largely been a white male oligarchy.

Unfortunately, the gains made during the years of the federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act may be in serious peril.  In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, essentially stripping the Department of Justice of a role in approving voter related legislation and monitoring elections.  The conservative majority argued the election of Barack Obama suggested racial discrimination no longer hindered voter participation.  This ruling immediately led to an avalanche of largely Republican sponsored legislation designed to suppress minority voter access.  These efforts focused on two primary strategies.

Voter ID Laws

State after state, under the guise of eliminating voter fraud, instituted voter ID laws.  Though these laws often included requirements in direct violation of the VRA, the Department of Justice no longer had the power to challenge these devices.  Again and again, studies find that these laws inordinately impact the poor and people of color.  In my home state of Indiana, though the laws technically offered free ID cards, they required a birth certificate to obtain an ID.  In truly Byzantine hypocrisy, Indiana law also required ID in order to obtain a copy of your birth certificate.  Additionally, most ID laws require the updating of all address changes, a major impediment for working class people who tend to be more transient and less able to make repeated trips to BMV offices.  While all of this might seem justifiable if voter fraud was rampant, Republican led investigations have never exposed more than a handful of voter fraud cases.

Voter Roll Purges

Making it difficult for new minority voters to register is only half of the Republican strategy.  The other half of the voter suppression campaign involved purging voter rolls in such a way as to eliminate thousands of minority voters.  Indeed, in many Republican states, millions of registered voters have been wiped from the rolls on technicalities and without due process.  In many cases, though the VRA still prohibits such activity, those who did not vote in the most recent elections were summarily removed.  In other cases, a data base with serious flaws was used to eliminate people who were allegedly voting in multiple states.  Though a Kansas investigation found only a single incidence of this occurring in a recent election, millions of voters were eliminated from the rolls because they shared similar names or birth dates with people in other states.

These two strategies, designed to allegedly defend the integrity of our elections, have actually resulted in the very opposite – elections where thousands of minority people arrived at the polling sites in 2016 and 2018 to be turned away.  In Wisconsin, black voting rates dropped from 78% in 2012 to less than 50% in 2016.  Fifty thousand less votes were counted in Milwaukee County in an election where Donald Trump only won the state by 27,000 votes.  Across the United States, there was a drop in black voting by 7% in an election where Donald Trump repeatedly said things that should have inspired black voter turnout. In Republican controlled states, the downturn in black voter turnout was as high as 14%.  In Anderson’s book, she outlines in great detail instances in state after state where minority voter turnout decreased for the first time in 50 years.  All of this occurring after the Supreme Court claimed racial discrimination was no longer a serious factor in US elections.

Ironically, the Supreme Court – while acknowledging the election of our first freely elected African-American president – failed to factor in an expected racist backlash from those who found his election repugnant.  Those opposed to his presidency essentially oppose a country where free and fair elections result in African-American presidents.

Make no mistake.  There is a significant portion of the US white population who would return to the days of Jim Crow.  The actions of the Republican Party in the past five years demonstrate this desire.  Indeed, the election of an unapologetic racist President was facilitated by their electoral shenanigans.  Perhaps their party is well named, for they seem more intent on a white republic than a genuine democracy.  Though the Democratic Party is guilty of its own excesses, few would dispute its desire to see all people vote.

If knowledge is power, all those who believe in and hope for a vibrant democracy would do well to spend a few evenings reading Carol Anderson’s “One Person, No Vote.”

Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

Can Trump Supporters and Progressives Be Friends?

One of my friends is an avowed political moderate.  He didn’t vote for Trump, but couldn’t stomach Hilary.  He finds the rhetoric and vitriol on both the right and the left troubling.  From this middle ground, he often criticizes my writings as “drifting too far to the left.”  Over the holidays, he complained, “You tolerate the lifestyles and opinions of everyone but white conservatives.  You paint them in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security and not be a racist xenophobe?  I don’t think you could be friends with a Trump supporter.  You’re even suspicious of me for having some.”

I’ve thought a lot about his questions over the past month.  Have I shifted too far left?  Am I intolerant of and hostile toward white conservatives?  Have I done what I disdain in them and demonized an entire group of people unfairly?  Could I be friends with a Trump supporter?  When he asked me that question directly, I said, “Probably not.”  Since our conversation, I’ve wondered if friendship between Trump supporters and progressives is possible, or even desirable.

Prior to the election of Trump, I certainly knew and interacted with many white conservatives, some within my own family.  While I didn’t lose any close friends after the election, I’ve probably alienated many casual acquaintances and a couple of my cousins.  A few people have unfriended me on Facebook.  At the time, I thought good riddance.  Indeed, I’ve seen people on both sides of this divide post memes with the introduction, “If you disagree with this, unfriend me now.”

My friend worries, “You want to change people’s mind about racism and white privilege, but you’ve run off everyone but those who already agree with you.”  There is some truth to that accusation.  I could blame the Facebook algorithms, but I don’t see as many conservative responses to my blog and posts.  If I am interested in dialogue and changing minds, do I need to moderate my tone and soften my positions?  Years ago, I would have defended the middle ground.  What changed?  What moved me away from my friend?

I know the answer to those last two questions.

Adopting a child of color altered my universe.  It forced me to question and examine everything I thought I understood.  It exposed racist attitudes and assumptions within me.  It spurred reading and research about the history of racial oppression and discrimination in America.  What had once been an abstract philosophical debate became personal.  For me – and I know this isn’t true for everyone with a close relationship with a person of color – that relationship created an empathy that radicalized me.

Middle ground, when it comes to racism and xenophobia, is no longer possible for me.  My friend says, “You see racism in nearly everything.”  He’s right.  I not only see it everywhere; I think it is everywhere.  He thinks much of what I see is a mirage.  I think what he doesn’t see is deeply embedded and camouflaged, nearly invisible to those who benefit from it.  For this reason, he can hear his white conservative friends talk of “Making America Great Again” as a political slogan where I hear it as a racist rant.  He gives them the benefit of the doubt.  I look at them with suspicion.  He calls some of them his friends.  I do not.

One of the factors in my growing intolerance has been my readings from American history.  In the book, “The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle For America’s Soul,”  Andrew Delbanco argues persuasively that the imposition of Fugitive Slave Laws, which required northern whites participate in the return of black men, women and children to slavery, was pivotal in the radicalization of the Abolition movement.  What the Southern states demanded from the Northern states, ironically, led to the demise of slavery.

As with the adoption of my daughter, personal interaction with people of color can change attitudes and assumptions.  As long as the cruelty of human bondage was a distant and distasteful abstraction, many white people comfortably inhabited middle ground on the issue of slavery.  When the government forced them to send someone back to certain abuse and torture, middle ground became an immoral swamp.  In the end, the divide between whites who found racism justifiable and those who found it abhorrent became a chasm that friendship and family could not bridge.  It led to a conflict where brother fought brother.

Understanding this history, my friend’s questions become more complicated.  I am certain there were people having our arguments in 1859.  I can hear one saying to another, “You’re drifting too far left.  You paint Southerners in the worst possible terms.  Isn’t it possible someone could support the institution of slavery for its economic and social benefits and still be a fine person?  You want to change the mind of the Southerner, but you’ve alienated them with your moral judgments and slander.  Can’t we all find middle ground?”

My friend won’t like this analogy.  He’ll argue my comparison of our present situation and the pre-Civil War society is a false equivalency, that this very argument is evidence of my radicalization.  I can hear him say, “You’re making it sound like we haven’t made any progress on the issues of racism in America. We freed the slaves.”  Until we elected Trump, I probably would have agreed with him.  Now, I am not so sure.  I worry we’ve simply hidden the chains of racial oppression.  How different is sending an asylum seeker back to their country from sending a fugitive slave back to the South?

Am I willing to interact with Trump supporters, to leave myself open to the possibility of friendship?  I suppose I am with this caveat – if you post memes defending Confederate memorials or wear a red MAGA hat, we are not going to be friends.  The division is too stark.  You are my enemy and my days of “loving my enemy” ended when I left religion.  I am at war with those who look back fondly on America’s racist past. You will not send my daughter back to that time.

If you are an enthusiastic supporter of such ugliness, I have no illusions about changing your mind.  You represent a generational malaise that has plagued our country for 400 years.  Tolerating its existence is why it continues to exist.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe your support of Trump is driven by a commitment to less government intrusion, lower taxes, gun rights and border security, let’s be friends.  I can and have disagreed with conservatives in the past on these issues and still been cordial.  I’d like to believe that many conservative people have had their politics hijacked and marginalized by populist racism.  If you are one of those people, I miss you.  Indeed, we need you.  You are not the problem.

You might even be part of the solution.