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.”


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.


Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

Some Things Deserve To Be Cursed

While I am certain I’ve been guilty of this in the past, one of my new pet peeves is white people who quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to support positions he would have found offensive.  White people love to pretend his “I Have A Dream” speech with its color blind references to black and white children holding hands was the pinnacle of this thinking.  It was not.  If anything, it was one of his more gentle and measured speeches, missing some of his more pointed opinions on racism and white supremacy.  He was being polite.

Ironically, one of the more common ploys of racist white people is to critique black voices today with the words of Dr. King.  They will quote some snippet from a King speech and say, “If Black Lives Matter would only adopt the non-violent, non-confrontational approach of King, people (meaning themselves) would be more likely to listen to their complaints.”  Such complaints remind me of something Jesus is reported to have said two thousand years ago.

In the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in the shedding of the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”

Those words seem especially applicable to my experience in past couple of years.  If what Jesus says is true, we are far more likely to honor the words and deeds of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today than our ancestors did during his day.  Unfortunately, if what Jesus says is true, how we think and respond to voices of color in our day is probably synonymous to the hostility with which our ancestors responded to Dr. King.  We are them. Whether we realize it or not, we treat the prophetic voices today with the same apathy, disdain, resistance or anger with which our ancestors responded to the Civil Rights movement.

We saw this exposed a couple of weeks ago when many white people expressed moral outrage at a Muslim congresswoman – Rashida Tlaib – who said of the president, “Impeach the Motherfucker.”  I saw this dynamic at work after a Black Lives Matter protest in 2017, when many of my white peers were critical of chants of “Fuck the police.”

I mention those words intentionally, with the same intent as the words of Dr. King, or Rashida Tliaib or Black Lives Matter, to provoke us to think more deeply about what is truly offensive and what is really about silencing the voices of our present prophets.  According to Jesus, every generation says, “If we have lived in that day, we would have not taken part in the silencing of the prophets” even while silencing the prophets of their day.  Whether in Jesus’s day, during the 60s or today, these two things are certain.  Prophets always speak in a way that provoke.  Those in power always critique their tone.

Middle class whites are the people in power.  We may not be the 1%, but nearly everyone us is in the 5%.  We are the oppressor or at least the chief beneficiaries of oppression in this world.  We haven’t owned slaves and we may not have directly mistreated people of color, but much of our wealth was passed to us by ancestors who did.  We may not directly act to diminish the lives of others around the world, but we live in a country largely built on the exploitation of others.  So perhaps we can have some sympathy when the oppressed find our complaints about civility suspicious.

Let me be clear. Politeness is a privilege of the powerful and a requirement – by them – for the powerless. When the oppressors, or the beneficiaries of oppression, complain about the use of profane words, this is less an expression of moral outrage and more a defense of the status quo.  What really offends us?  The profanity or the exposure of an injustice we’d prefer to ignore.

Indeed, the complaints of the oppressor about tone and civility are always hypocritical, self-serving and ethically suspect.  The scribes and Pharisees were so offended by Jesus’ rhetoric.  After all, he called them the equivalent of Motherfucker.  That doesn’t mean his accusations weren’t valid.  Too often, our complaints about tone seem designed to distract attention from the legitimacy of an identified injustice.  We act as if Congresswoman Tlaib’s use of a profanity somehow justifies and excuses the treatment of Muslims by this administration, or that tolerating one profane chant by Black Lives Matter levels the scales after four hundred years of racial abuse.

Or, if we’re progressive, we argue strategy.  We complain that the profanities are counterproductive, that this approach allows people to discount a just cause.  We advocate for politeness, patience and process, never considering the possibility that they choose their words precisely because they’re tired of years of having their more measured complaints discounted.  While complaining strategy, we might want to examine the effectiveness of our own strategies.  Critiquing the emotionally passionate expressions of the oppressed might not be the best approach.

One of the first lessons in de-escalation training is too never tell an emotionally enraged person to “calm down.”  Indeed, to do so is to almost guarantee an even stronger emotional response.  Asking someone to calm down is more about our discomfort than their need to be heard.  The proper response to strongly expressed emotion is to reply, “I hear and share your sadness and anger over past and present injustice.”  An emotionally charged person wants to be heard and understood and not critiqued.

Our attempts to silence the complaints and profanities of the oppressed are akin to the rapist who demands his victim, “Shut up and enjoy it.”  While it might be strategically expedient for the rape victim to comply, a lack of resistance is not a moral requirement, especially when this passivity may be interpreted as permission and presented as such in a court of law.  Christine Blasey Ford was required to be polite and measured in her complaint of sexual assault while Brett Kavanaugh could be aggressive and ugly.

This is the paradox for the oppressed.  When the oppressed complain loudly, vehemently and even profanely about injustice, they are often criticized for their tone, even while those who patiently and politely advocate for justice have their absence of aggressiveness interpreted as a lack of urgency.  Dr. King understood this dilemma well.  Listen to his provocative words.

“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 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.” 

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

These are the words for which our ancestors rejected and ultimately killed Dr. King.  Note that they did so even though he spoke no profanities.  In actuality, the ability of people of color today to call the President a Motherfucker and tell the police to Fuck off may be a sign of progress rather than incivility.  What King had to say in the private, they can finally say more publicly. The oppressed have enough power to challenge the privilege of politeness, to demand that we listen and really hear.

Let me be clear.  Those of us for whom life has been privileged have no right to police the tone of those who’ve experienced oppressions we do not understand and for which we are partially to blame.  When we do so, we deserve their curses.  The swampy morass from which we condemn them is not the moral high ground we pretend.

After nearly sixty years, I have learned at least one thing.  When I encounter strong expressions of emotion, I do not focus on the words.  I try to listen for the deeper pain and loss those words represent.  I remember an often ignored story about Jesus.  Near the end of his life, when the forces that would kill him were gathering, he walked by a fig tree and reached up to pick some fruit.  Unfortunately, figs were out of season and he found none.  Jesus immediately cursed at tree.

I like that story.  It’s so human.  Though we don’t know what profanities Jesus used on that day, we do know this.  It wasn’t about the tree.

Jesus cursed in response the religious people of his day, who were more concerned about proprieties than poverty and injustice.  Jesus taught us that some things deserved to be cursed.

When Rashida Tlaib cursed a President who has systematically sought to marginalize, denigrate and harm Muslims, she was being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

When Black Lives Matter protesters curse the police for their systemic profiling, harassment and even murder of black folk, they are being Jesus like.  Some things deserve to be cursed.

Dr. King said it this way, “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.”

When we are critical of those who curse in response to evil and oppression, we are not being good Christians or moral giants, we are scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites.

We’re being Motherfuckers and we need to stop.

Some things deserve to be cursed.

How To Identify White Supremacist Sympathizers and Secret Agents Over Thanksgiving Dinner

How To Identify White Supremacist Sympathizers and Secret Agents Over Thanksgiving Dinner

While I worry about swastika tattooed and Confederate flag waving white supremacists, at least I know exactly where they stand on the question of racial equality and reconciliation. We hold irreconcilable views on the past, present and future of our nation.  We need not debate one another. We share nothing in common other than the pigment of our skin and the nation we inhabit. Though such people often do damage through violent acts of racism, they are not whom I most fear.

It is the secret agents and sympathizers of white supremacy that keep me up at night. Those who most concern me do not proclaim their sentiments so boldly. They argue for civility, even while sowing division. They defend the Constitution, even while attacking its equal protections. They give lip service to justice, even while chipping away at the rights of people of color.

It is family members, friends, acquaintances and neighbors with white supremacist sympathies that frighten me. They never use the N word, never blatantly attack people of color and never applaud the crazies – at least not in public. Yet time and again these people hint at a darker allegiance – one that supersedes any commitment to racial equity and national unity.

These people are the fifth column of white nationalism, blending into a multicultural society even while working for its demise. They are the pillars of white supremacy. They are talking heads on television, members of think tanks, politicians, business people and church leaders. They are truck drivers and teachers, airline pilots and grocery baggers. They exist in nearly every white family, business and organization, insinuating there is something deeply wrong with our country and that the problem is rooted in people of color. Ironically, when their thinly veiled racist assertions are challenged, they often accuse their challengers of reverse racism, offering themselves as the true victims of injustice.

Indeed, this propensity to claim reverse racism is one of the surest signs of their true sympathies. In pretending that any criticism of the assertions, beliefs or behaviors of white people is racist, they ignore and obscure vast and obvious disparities in power, wealth and status, implying an acceptance of systemic racism. For them, the problem in the United States does not reside in these inequities, but in those who identify them. Criticism of white people is motivated by hate, jealousy and resentment and not any legitimate complaint.

When Mr. Trump was recently asked by a black reporter if his use of nationalist language was divisive, he claimed her question was racist.  What made her question racist had nothing to do with its appropriateness and everything to do with a black woman audaciously challenging his superiority. White supremacists recognized what he was doing and applauded.  People of color found it familiar and gritted their teeth. Only white progressives debated the fairness of her question.

Make no mistake.  Only white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers claim reverse racism.  This tactic of accusing your victims of your propensities is time honored.  Plantation owners accused blacks of being lazy while sipping mint juleps on their porches. White mobs accused blacks of being violent while gathering in courtyards to lynch them. White men maligned blacks as sexually deviant while raping black women and girls under their power. When white people claim racial victimization, they make a mockery of any commitment to justice.

They know the system is rigged in their favor. They like it that way. They are committed to defending their privilege, even while arguing it doesn’t exist.  When they dispute the constitutionality of birthright citizenship, they are not defenders of originalism or advocates of legal immigration. What they defend is white dominance.  When they argue for a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment, don’t be confused.  It was the Confederate rebellion that provoked the 14th and the KKK that most ardently opposed it.

Indeed, in highlighting and advocating for the white supremacist opposition to the 14th Amendment, Mr. Trump may have done progressives and people of color a favor.  This Thanksgiving, ask your friends and family what they think about birthright citizenship.  Those who defend it as central to the American experiment are your allies.  Those who disparage the 14th Amendment as misinterpreted or outdated have outed themselves as white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers.  You may not have the courage to challenge them, but at least you know their true colors.

If you do challenge them, ask if they realize such arguments have long been popular in Klan and white supremacy circles.  Ask if that makes them uncomfortable.  Ask how America would be better if we eliminated birthright citizenship.  Ask who should now be eligible.  Ask why now, when white people have the lowest birthrates in US history, that this is their priority. If they argue for some pure and original interpretation of the constitution, you will know them for who are.  White supremacist secret agents and sympathizers always look back fondly on the racist origins of our nation.

When you encounter nostalgia for an America of the past, understand what it represents.  Unless you are a white, there has never been a time in American history as good as it is now.  There are few blacks, gays, Latinos, women of color, Native Americans, Asians, or Muslims nostalgic for the America of old.  Such nostalgia is white privilege.  Those who speak of better days in the past – if given the opportunity – would recreate its ugliness.  They yearn for a time when minorities had no choice but to silently bear their oppression.  Only white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers want to return to any point in America’s past.

Mr. Trump and his minions understood this dynamic. They intentionally crafted their “Make America Great Again” campaign knowing full well with whom it would most resonate.  It was a call for all white supremacists – the neo-Nazi shock troops, the closeted racists and the white supremacist sympathizers to unite under one tent.  That so few Republicans fled from that tent is evidence of how deeply embedded white supremacy is in our political system. That so many white progressives still argue for non-partisanship suggests how insidious white supremacy remains.  Even those of us who oppose white supremacy are still susceptible to its allures.  After all, in a white supremacist society, white progressives still benefit.

Today is not the day for less debate, less challenge and less exposure of our racial divides.  Our country – like in the days prior to the Civil War – is divided for good reason. We face the same choice our ancestors did in 1860 and 1960. Will we be a nation committed to equality and justice for all or a nation where people of color are separate and unequal?  We cannot allow ourselves to be swayed by arguments that diminish the seriousness of this moment.

As in past battles with white supremacy, we must identify our allies and our enemies. We cannot pretend there are good people on both sides.  You are either a white person wrestling with your racism and privilege or you are not. Your goodness, in our present society, must be measured by this and this alone – are you committed to justice and equity for all. You cannot be a white supremacist secret agent or sympathizer and argue for your morality. Your heroes are not Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. Your sympathies are with Hitler, George Wallace and David Duke. You are not a good person.

Maya Angelou famously wrote, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.”  It is time for us to believe those who reveal by word and action that their sympathies are with white supremacy.   Whether they sit in the Oval Office or across from us as the Thanksgiving table, we can hope for their repentance, but – until that day – we must assume their intentions are for ill and not for good.  We must recognize them for who they are and oppose them in every way.

Finding Comfort In Discomfort

Finding Comfort In Discomfort


I will be speaking at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio on Saturday, November 17th. In the morning, I will speak on “How Ella Changed My Life” and participate in a panel discussion on cross racial dialogue. In the afternoon, I will lead a workshop on “The Reasonableness of Reparations.”  There will also be a workshop on Implicit Bias.  Registration is open, but limited.

If you live in Ohio, I hope you’ll register and join the conversation.  Those interested in reading the blogs that inspired this event and the workshop can do so at “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question.”

Those interested in attending the event can register at the following link…



A Terror Filled Election

A Terror Filled Election

We’ve seen worse.

While many rightly describe the present election cycle as divisive and hate filled, the elections of 1874 and 1876 were – without question – the most violent elections in American history.  This became painfully clear to me as I recently read a biography of President Ulysses S Grant.  Ron Chernow’s portrayal of Grant made me aware of many historic realities, including how little progress we’ve actually made around racial reconciliation.

Chernow makes a strong argument for Grant as the least racist white President in American history and a true friend to people of color.  During his administration (1868-1876), blacks had more rights and hopes than they would have for the next 90 years.  Sadly, both Grant and Lincoln – Republican presidents – would abhor the Republican party of today as an anathema to all they fought for in the Civil War. In the 1870s, Republicans were the defenders of civil and voting rights for people of color.  Tragically, in 1874 and 1876, the rights of black people, newly granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were besieged and systematically stripped from black citizens.

That we’ve seen worse should bring us no comfort.  In many ways, today’s political rhetoric and maneuvering is reminiscent of the racial divisions and hatreds that fueled the violence in the 1870s. Chernow spends a chapter of his book chronicling how whites organized into groups like the Ku Klux Klan, White People’s Party, White Leaguers, Red Shirts, Knights of the White Camellia and the White Line Rifle Clubs.  These groups had one primary function – terrorize blacks in order to keep them from voting.  Chernow notes these groups successfully eliminated the black vote during those elections and laid the groundwork for 90 years of Jim Crow.

After reading his accounts, I have concluded that if you have a white male ancestor who lived in the South during those years, you are probably descended from a murderer. Though I had read of the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s and early 1870s, I had not made the connection between these domestic terrorists and voting rights. This terrorism was not the acts of some fringe movement. The majority of Southern white men actively participated in the murder of black men and women during those years.

While the examples of this terror are numerous, I want to highlight the most grievous:

  • In April of 1873, in Colfax Parish, Louisiana, a majority black county, a white mob surrounded the courthouse, targeted black office holders and killed 73 black men in a single day. If you have a white ancestor from Colfax Parish, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
  • In August of 1874, six black leaders in Coushatta, Mississippi were drug from their beds by mobs of white men and murdered. If you have a white ancestor from Coushatta, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
  • In September of 1874, White Leaguers stormed the New Orleans City Hall and Louisiana Statehouse, killing more than 20 public officials and insisting a white supremacist be seated as lieutenant governor. Over several days, hundreds of blacks in New Orleans were killed and thousands fled.  The segregated schools and police force of New Orleans were disbanded.  Five thousand federal troops had to be sent to restore order. If you have a white ancestor from Louisiana, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
  • In December of 1874, the White League seized the Vicksburg, Mississippi courthouse, ran off the black Sheriff and office holders. In the course of several days, over 320 black men were killed and their bodies were allowed to rot in the streets. If you have a white ancestor from Mississippi, you’re likely descended from a murderer.

A subsequent Federal investigation would document over 2000 murders of black men and women in Mississippi and Louisiana in 1874 alone.  These efforts to terrorize blacks were so successful that in the 1875 election in Yazoo County, Mississippi, a county with a majority population of 12,000 blacks, only eight votes were cast for Republicans.  In 1876, there were only two votes.  In early 1876, John Lynch, one of the last black Mississippi congressmen, wrote, “The Democrats (the white supremacy party of the 1870s) proposed to carry every Southern State as they carried Mississippi last year – not by power of the ballot – but by an organized system of terrorism and violence.”

He was prophetic.  What succeeded in Mississippi and Louisiana spread throughout the South.  South Carolina, which had been one of the most integrated governments in the South, completely changed in racial composition in one election cycle.  On July 4, 1876, whites gathered outside Hamburg, SC – a strong black community – and demanded the black militia in that community disarm.  When they refused, they attacked the town, killing dozens and pillaging every black home.  This initiated a reign of terror than virtually ended all black voting in South Carolina for 90 years.

Why are these stories important?

Elections matter.

White racists, then and now, fear them.  They consistently do all in their power to obstruct and suppress the votes of people of color.  Democracy is not their friend.  These stories also remind us that civil and voting rights – though we may take them for granted – can easily and quickly be removed when whites decide to use their privilege and power.  Progress is not inevitable.  Our nation has and can regress.  When white people look back nostalgically to the past, when they wax poetic about the Confederacy and the Southern way of life and when they suggest they want to make America great again, don’t be confused. These are the descendants of murderers.

For these reasons, I am less and less concerned about whether the Russians colluded with the Trump administration to assist in his election. The greatest threats to democratic elections are not foreign agents, but white strategies to disenfranchise people of color. Indeed, I’ve begun to wonder if the whole Mueller investigation is a distraction intended to focus our attention and energy on the trivial while the terrible takes place.

The American election system – rather than Russia – is to blame for our present plight.  Trump energized white fear and exploited racial divides. He was assisted by an electoral system designed and controlled by white people. That is what should most concern us in 2018.

What should outrage us is Republican states purging their voting roles, invalidating thousands of registrations on technicalities and demanding Native Americans have a street address in order to vote.  What should dismay us is how racial gerrymandering has allowed many states to be overly represented by white men.  What should worry us is that predominantly white rural states will send 70 senators to Congress while predominantly minority urban states will send only 30, even though these minority states vastly outnumber the rural states in population.  White men in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Idaho, Wyoming and Oklahoma, as the system intended, will continue to be overly represented and empowered.

Though I do not think our present elections will descend into the violence of the 1870s, I worry that the elections of 2018 and 2020 could be as damaging to our democracy.  Whether we realize it or not, we may be voting on what kind of country we will live in for the next 100 years – one where people of color are empowered or one where the progress of the past 50 years is destroyed and people of color are disenfranchised.

It happened in 1876.  It can happen again.

Now, while you can, get out and vote.

Using the “N” Word

Using the “N” Word

This past week, former White House staffer and reality TV star Omarosa Manigault claimed to have heard President Trump say the “N” word.  Indeed, she said she had heard him do so on a tape.  Political pundits suggested that, if this tape existed, it could seriously damage the President’s reputation.

Really?  With whom?

When it comes to the use of the “N” word, you can roughly divide white Americans into three distinct groups: those who regularly use the word, those who think of their abstention as a gift and those who find the word offensive and dehumanizing.  For the sake of clarity, let me briefly discuss each of these groups and their probable response to a tape of the President using the “N” word.

In 2006, a poll found 8% of white people thought the use of the “N” word justifiable.  While that small percentage may sound encouraging, the same poll also found that 46% of whites knew another white person who used the “N” word.  So either that 8% really gets around or more people are using the “N” word than polling suggests.  More damning, a 2012 poll found that 31% of all whites admitted to using the “N” word at least once in the past five years.  A recent survey found that 39% of white Americans would support a candidate who used the “N” word.  Based on these polls, about a third of the white population finds nothing objectionable about the “N” word.

Let’s face it.  For many of Trump’s staunchest supporters, his use of the “N” word would bolster, rather than damage, his reputation.  Such a tape would justify their own use of the word.  More importantly, it would validate their worldview.  Clearly, there is one group with whom the President’s popularity is nearly unanimous – white supremacists. For them, the use of the “N” word is a philosophical commitment to the dehumanization of people of color.  They use this term precisely because they believe people of color are less human.  Any thoughtful American should be deeply disturbed that the people who advocate white supremacy consider Trump an ally.  Unfortunately, many Americans are not very thoughtful.

Those who tolerate this incongruity represent the second group of white Americans.  While these people do not generally use the “N” word, they freely associate with those who do.  They excuse the behavior of those who use the “N” word as uncouth or politically incorrect rather than for what it is – the dehumanization of another person.  They are unlikely to challenge the use of the word or question the worldview of those who do.  They may feign disgust with the President using the “N” word, but they will not find it disqualifying.

Sadly, they represent a large swath of white Americans who – though they avoid the word – have probably used it in a moment of anger or passion.  Which means, under stress, they expose their true colors.  The only significant difference between them and those who use the “N” word is their vocabulary.  When it comes to worldview, they share a low opinion of people of color.  They are polite racists.  For them, not using the “N” word is a benevolence.  They could have, but they didn’t.  These are the people who complain, “If black people can say it, why can’t I?”  To which, the proper response is simply, “Why would you want to?”

This brings us to the final group of white Americans – people who have no desire to diminish the value of people of color in any way.  For these white people, the use of the “N” word is deeply offensive.  We do not use it, even when angry or impassioned, and quickly challenge those who do.  We understand that not using the “N’ word is not a noble sacrifice or act of kindness.  It is the behavior of a mature human being.  For a mature white American, the use of the “N” word disqualifies a person from any position of leadership, be it of a pizza company or our government.

Regrettably, the possibility that the President used the “N” word only confirms what we have known about his character.  We have long ago recognized his many dog whistles.  We know that terms like “ignorant, low IQ, dog, animal, sons of bitches” are simply surrogates for what the President calls people of color privately.  We know that, should the tape be revealed, many white Americans will ignore, justify or diminish its significance.  They will avoid the common response to many of Trump’s more outrageous claims, that “he is simply saying what many people think.”

Unfortunately, as in those other circumstances, they’re right.

In using the “N” word, Trump is simply saying what far too many white Americans think.

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