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.


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.

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.

On Super Bowl Sunday

On Super Bowl Sunday

Since I am sometimes accused of bringing race into everything, it seems fitting to bring my growing sensitivity to white privilege and racial discrimination to this high, holy day in American culture. It would seem unlikely that such a quintessential American event would be immune to the systemic racism that plagues the rest of our national institutions. What should we look for as we sit down this evening with our beer, chips and bean dip?

First, we should notice the composition of the teams. Though their helmets may obscure this – other than in the highly visible quarterbacks – there will be very few white faces on the field. About 70% of the players on the Super Bowl teams are black.  This, in and of itself, should be startling.  There is no other place in American society where black men are so over represented.  This even dwarfs the scandalous over representation of blacks in our prison system, which hovers at around 37%.

While some might suggest the presence of so many blacks on football fields is a sign of racial progress and equality, this would be a little like arguing the predominance of black faces in cotton fields of the 1850s suggested blacks had a special affinity for agriculture. In both instances, a more reasonable assumption is that we’ve created systems that either require or direct young black men in a specific direction. While the fields may have changed, the system has not.

Young black men are inundated with media images that predominantly show them as either sports stars, criminals, or sometimes both. While some will argue the media is simply mirroring our society, it seems ridiculous to argue that these images represent the true aspirations of black young people.  Even more troubling, since we know only 0.09% of all high school  football players ever play in the NFL, highlighting the success of black men in sports sets up thousands of young black men for failure and disappointment. While both white and black boys have unrealistic opinions of their athletic prowess, the alternatives for disappointed white athletes are far more obvious than for disappointed black athletes.

This leads me to the second thing to watch tonight. Watch the commercials carefully to see if and when blacks are portrayed.  While marketing firms have become more racially conscious, most of what we will see tonight in the highly synchronized commercials will reinforce rather than challenge racial prejudices or white privilege.  Notice what race of people will be shown with the high dollar items – cars, jewelry, etc.  Notice when blacks are represented and how.  While the Super Bowl is performed by a largely black cast, the programming will focus on white privilege and superiority.

Notice how many white faces will be represented in the quarterbacks, coaches, commentators, referees and owners. (There are no black owners.)  In nearly every decision making position in the professional football industry, blacks are seriously under represented.  They are trusted to guard the quarterback or carry and catch the ball, but they are seldom asked to lead or decide.  Indeed, the percentage of black players on defense is almost 85%.  Since the goal of football is ultimately to score touchdowns, even this highest of prizes is reserved more often for white players.

While some will point out the high salaries paid to black football players as evidence of racial equality, it should be noted that this affluence comes with certain demands by the white owners. As in the days of Jim Crow, black players are free to spend their money as they wish, to peddle merchandise and to garner a certain level of acclaim.  They are not, however, allowed to speak about the racism they encounter in their lives and in society. While they are often lifted up as representatives of their race, they are highly discouraged from modeling anything other than compliance with a racially discriminatory system.  When they violate this expectation, they don’t play football much longer.  Ask Colin Kaepernick.

Tonight, there is one thing we are unlikely to see. We are unlikely to see one of Donald Trump’s “sons of bitches” kneel during the national anthem.  And if they should do so and if the television networks broadcast their act of protest, we can expect to see a myriad of criticisms and condemnations of their unpatriotic and ungrateful behavior. Someone will inevitably say, “If they don’t like America, why don’t they go back to Africa?”  They will imply that the solution to injustice in America is not to resolve it, but to send those who are victims of that injustice away…from football, into prisons, and even to Africa.

Oddly, white people never consider the possibility that Africa might actually be preferable for a black person, that those “shithole countries” have at least one thing that America does not. They are countries where black faces are represented in every occupation and field of endeavor, where the options for a young black boy or girl are not limited to sports or jail.  They are places where black people lead and make decisions.  While African countries have their imperfections and challenges, they far exceed America in giving black people an equal opportunity to succeed.

On Super Bowl Sunday, it seems appropriate to ask this simple question. What would it take to create a system where black people were over represented in the halls of Congress, at hospitals, on universities and in corporations?  Would we think it odd if 70% of congress people, doctors, professors or CEOs were people of color?  I suspect white people would find this disturbing, even threatening.  That this same level of over representation on football fields seems perfectly normal and acceptable is evidence of our inability to see the deep racial dimensions of everything in our society.

Even the Super Bowl.


An Apology To Dr. King

An Apology To Dr. King

My apologies to you, Dr. King.

Until this year, I did not fully recognize my offensive behavior. Like most white folk, I saw the celebration of your birth as a day off work rather than a moment of national reflection. I was unaware of how we’ve neutered the poignancy of your complaints, defanged the sharpness of your rhetoric and domesticated the wildness of your dream.  I did not realize that we celebrate your birth in order to avoid the circumstances of your death, that a white man silenced your voice with a bullet.  Until this year, I did not understand that this day – unlike Thanksgiving and Fourth of July – should not be a day of celebration, but a day of national mourning.

My apologies to you, Dr. King.

Until this year, I was oblivious to how I and so many other white people – conservative and liberal alike – have taken your name in vain. We have popularized our favorite quotes without reference to your consistent themes.  We have repackaged you as a good negro – patient, gracious, reasonable and respectful.  Though our grandparents thought you uppity, offensive and dangerous, we portray you as preferable to Black Lives Matter, implying you wouldn’t share their concerns, complaints or strategies.  Until this year, I didn’t comprehend how fully we’ve dishonored you.

My apologies to you, Dr. King.

To those of us who know so little about you and your concerns, I hear your complaint that, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” I acknowledge the shallowness of our interest and I apologize.

To those of us who blame the lack of economic progress by people of color on people of color, I hear your retort that, “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his bootstraps.” “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” I acknowledge the callousness of our disdain and I apologize.

To those of us who criticize people of color when they take to the streets to demand justice, I hear your reminder that, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” I acknowledge the truth of your analysis and I apologize.

To those of us who accuse Black Lives Matter folk of being as extreme as the white supremacists, I hear your rebuttal that, “The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”  I acknowledge your condemnation of our false equivalencies and I apologize.

To those of us glory in our tolerance of people of color, offering them a smile and a handshake rather than the justice they so desire, I hear your conclusion that, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” I acknowledge your impatience with our lack of sincerity and I apologize.

To those of us who find the shooting of an unarmed black man by the police a statistically acceptable occurrence, I hear your indictment, that, “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” I acknowledge your frustration with our lack of urgency and I apologize.

To those of us who think you would be pleased with our racial progress and complimentary to today’s white person, I hear your prophecy that, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  I acknowledge the legitimacy of your fears and I apologize.

To those of us who have neutered, defanged and domesticated you, I hear your judgment that, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”  I acknowledge the fairness of your critique and I apologize.

Dr. King,  while you were willing to be arrested and jailed for what you believed, we have passively tolerated the reversal of many of your most hard fought victories.  If anyone is to blame for your unfulfilled dream, it is us.  Today, on this day of reckoning and mourning, I pledge to take your concerns, complaints and commitments more seriously, to be one of those white people who sees and hears you as you are and not as we would have you be.

My apologies to you, Dr. King.

Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

Why White Men Should Feel Ashamed

November was an enlightening month.

In late October, I posted an essay entitled “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.” Though my blog is generally read by a couple of thousand people, in this instance and to my surprise, my post generated over 120,000 views over the next few weeks.  I received hundreds of comments, many of which I could not approve because of their ugliness and profanity.  If I had any doubt about the premise of the post – that people’s negativity toward the question of reparations is a fairly good indicator of their blatant or latent racism – the response to the post dispelled them.

Throughout November, I engaged – both publicly and privately – in lengthy exchanges with angry, white men over the legitimacy of reparations and the present state of racial relations in America. These conversations led me to write two follow up posts outlining a reasonable approach to reparations as well as my own personal commitment. I also became more aware of the present and potential dangers of angry, white men.

During this encounter with white masculinity, I gradually realized the responses of angry white men to reparations echoed what I was hearing from other angry, white men about sexual harassment. As you know, November was also the month of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C. K., Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer and Al Franken, of countless allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and of denials and justifications.  As I was engaging in one discussion while listening to another, the similarities in the responses became more and more obvious.  It was almost as if racist and sexually inappropriate men were reading off the same script.

Deny or Question the Veracity of the Injury

As I talked with white men about slavery and racial discrimination, I was amazed by how often they denied the existence of racism today. According to them, America was a level playing field and any disparities between blacks and whites were the fault of people of color.  Some actually argued that, if racism existed, they were its target. While no one claimed slavery didn’t happen, they were quick to diminish its impact. One man even quoted Muhammed Ali, who – while boxing in Africa – once quipped, “Thank God my granddaddy got on that boat.”  In this twisted manipulation of Ali’s opinions on racism, slavery was actually a positive historical event bringing Christianity and prosperity to black people.

This same willingness to deny or discount a past injury was echoed in many of the responses of men accused of sexual harassment. Even when the past harassment was acknowledged, men were quick to suggest that the incident was trivial, even unmemorable. Franken apologized, but admitted he couldn’t even remember the incidents. One defender of Roy Moore actually argued that Moore’s behavior was somehow similar to that of Mary and Joseph in the Bible. Moore wasn’t a creepy pedophile. He was a Biblical patriarch.

Question the Timing of the Injured Party

Those accused of sexual harassment were quick to question the timing of the allegation. They asked why, after so long, these women were finally claiming injury.  There was little recognition of how – if the accusations were as described – these men had used their power to intimidate and harass their victims, to even threaten them should they expose the injury. Ironically, our patriarchal culture makes it extremely difficult for women to expose sexual assault and harassment and then castigates them for their reluctance. Only the recent number of successful exposures has given some women the courage to speak out.

Angry, white men express similar irritation with the timing of calls for reparations. They too asked why, so many years after the end of slavery, black people were demanding reparations.  There was little recognition of how – for most of the past 150 years – powerful white men responded to calls for reparations with everything from laughter to lynching.  As with victims of sexual harassment, people usually expose past injuries when they feel some modicum of safety.  A nation that only apologized for slavery in 2009 shouldn’t be surprised by the sudden upsurge in calls for reparations.

Question the Motive and Character of the Injured Party

During my exchanges, I repeatedly heard reparations described as the strategy of “money grubbing black people.” Instead of legitimate compensation for centuries of economic exploitation, reparations were often defined as an injustice to white people.  According to this trope, white people are hardworking and responsible. Our affluence has nothing to do with past oppressive. Inversely, black people are greedy and irresponsible. Their present challenges are the result of their own flaws.  While only the most bigoted came right out and said black people were lazy, stupid or immoral, much of the rhetoric implied as much.  In the end, these arguments often ended by suggesting white people were the victims.

Most of the men exposed as sexual harassers would have us believe they – rather than their accusers – are the victims. The women are money grubbing liars motivated by a desire for fame. Often, in diminishing the credibility of their accusers, the unrelated or incidental failings of their accusers are paraded publicly.  While few men come right out and say these women are loose and immoral, much of the rhetoric implies as much.  Ironically, though the men deny assaulting or harassing the women, they also imply their accusers are the kind of women who invite or deserve such treatment.

Diminish the Impact of the Injury

Many of these men also suggest their actions were trivial, playful or even well intentioned. The injury, if acknowledged at all, is presented as minor. Moore asked the mothers for permission to date their daughters. Franken was just kidding around.  All Louis C.K. asked was that they watch.  If the women weren’t liars, they were certainly exaggerating or misconstruing what happened. The victims of sexual harassment are either portrayed as pathetic losers trying to pull down their superiors or – if they are deemed successful women – as evidence that the past assault and harassment didn’t impact their careers.

Those opposing reparations utilize this same paradoxical argument. On one hand, the success of a few blacks is offered as evidence that there wasn’t really any injury.  How can racism exist in a country where Barack Obama was elected president?  Those people of color who have not succeeded are examples, not of systemic racism, but of their own inadequacies.  The racism that cannot be ignored is trivialized as the bigotry of a few white supremacists.  Micro-aggressions aren’t real.  Most of what people of color report as racist is either exaggerated or misconstrued.

Reject Any Responsibility While Normalizing The Behavior

Ultimately, the goal of angry, white men – whether in talking about reparations or sexual harassment – is to avoid any personal or corporate responsibility. Either they didn’t do anything wrong or they have no responsibility for the actions of others. Yet often, in avoiding any culpability, they express sentiments that suggest they harbor the cultural and philosophical positions that undergird racism and sexism.

While they quickly condemn the most horrific examples of racism and sexism, they often follow these condemnations with justifications and excuses.  Boys will be boys. White people should be able to celebrate their heritage. It was just locker room talk or bar banter.  Men can be sexually harassed by women, too.  Whites are the victims of racism as much as people of color.  Sexual harassment is simply the by-product of gender equality and sexual freedom.  People of color need to toughen up if they want to succeed in a free society.  And on and on.

It was usually at this point in a discussion that I would withdraw from the conversation. What had started out as a discussion of an injury had ended up as a rationalization for a system which empowers men to injure the less powerful.  By the end of November, I’d realized what opposition to reparations and reports of sexual harassment had most in common – angry, white men.  These were men desperately defending the very privilege that makes racism and sexism possible.  I began to suspect those complaining the most were probably also men with past transgressions.

Time and again, in this past month, I have heard men say, “I will not feel guilty about being white.” Initially, I assured them this was not my intent, that I wanted them to take responsibility rather than feel guilty.  By the end of the month, after hearing other men declare that they would not feel guilty for being men, such complaints began to ring hollow. There is a certain kind of white masculinity that should deeply embarrass all men.  This distorted masculinity is not solely exhibited in the David Dukes and Roy Moores of America.  It is deeply ingrained in the psyche of millions of white American men.

As much as I wish it were so, racism and sexism will not be solved by reparations or the firing of countless sexual harassers, though both of these responses are necessary. Our culture will only begin to change when more men accept some responsibility for the white patriarchy that makes David Duke and Roy Moore possible. They are not aberrations. They are representations. It is far past time for white men to finally feel ashamed about how we, our peers and our forefathers have treated women and people of color.  No more excuses.  No more justifications.

We need white men strong and brave enough to publicly abandon both the vestiges and the privileges of white patriarchy.  These are men willing to acknowledge the injuries of the past and to accept their continued complicity in sustaining systems that oppress people of color and women.  If white men want to be proud, let it be a pride in their commitment to stand up – not in defense of other white men – but in defense of those who have been defenseless for too long.  Until we are willing to do this, shame on us.