The Walls That Divide Us

The Walls That Divide Us

When I was a boy, my parents moved our large family from a town to a farm. We went from a small house with a small yard to a house on eleven acres of fields and woods, with a small pond and a creek running through it.  For my three brothers, my sister and me, the move was magical.  Our first summer there was one of adventure and exploration.  We spent our days clearing trails through the woods and building small wooden bridges over the creek.  We also became acquainted with our neighbors, of which we had one.

Our new home shared a lane with one other house, inhabited by a young married couple with no children and a swimming pool. My siblings and I quickly decided to become fast friends with Roger and Eilene and their pool, visiting them several times each day.  We were certain they would like us and utterly devastated when – a few weeks after we arrived – Roger built a tall privacy fence between their house and ours.

When we asked my father why Roger and Eilene had built the fence, he avoided the obvious answer that young married couples don’t usually fantasize about sharing their lives and their pool with five very noisy and nosey children. Instead, he said, “There are two kinds of people in this world – people who build walls and people who build bridges.  Roger and Eilene are the wall building kind and we’re the bridge building kind.”

I’ve remembered my father’s words often throughout my life. Time and again, I’ve encountered people and situations where the dividing line has often been between wall building and bridge building.  I’ve seen this in issues of politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality.  I’ve also realized that most of us are taught to be one or the other.  Neither I nor any of my siblings have ever built a fence between our yards and those of our neighbors.  We understood that what you build is a reflection of a deeper attitude toward life.

Ironically, in my formative adult years, I watched another conservative Republican president – Ronald Reagan – spend a lot of time talking about walls. Only his mantra was “Tear down that wall.”  I vividly remember when the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and all that it represented.  Conservatives and progressives alike recognized that any wall that keeps poor and oppressed people from freedom and opportunity is to be hated and opposed.  Back then, it was the Communists who were chanting “Build that wall.”

I suppose that’s why I worry so much about our President’s desire to build a wall on our southern border. I fear our country is changing and not for the better, that what we want to build is a reflection of a deeper malaise, of a not so subtle shift from being a nation of bridge builders to being a nation of wall builders.  Does this desire to build a wall represent a deeper inclination to build walls between people of different politics, race, economics, gender, religion and sexuality?  This seems a fairly easy case to make.

Early estimates for the cost of building the border wall run anywhere from $15 to $25 billion dollars, with past performance by government construction projects suggesting we error on the higher number. Other projections suggest manning, monitoring and maintaining the wall could require an additional billion dollars each year.  This would make the wall a $35 billion dollar investment for ten years of “protection” from poor and oppressed men, women and children seeking freedom and opportunity. More damning, this priority on wall building will mean the paltry $320 million dollars of foreign aid we have previously provided to Mexico will end.  In the first quarter of the Trump presidency, we gave less than $1 million dollars in assistance to battling poverty in Mexico.

As a director of a community development organization – CoCoDA – which does work in Central America, I have to wonder what would happen if – instead of a wall – we invested $35 billion dollars in schools, clinics, roads and housing in Mexico and Central America. After all, another way to eliminate illegal immigration is to eliminate its necessity.  I’d feel so much better about the use of my tax dollars if I knew they were going to building something that will enhance human lives.  But then again, I’m bridge builder.

However, in the end, it is not the financial cost of the wall that most concerns me. We are a rich nation and can afford to build a wall.  What I fear is the cost to our national psyche.  What are we teaching our children about the world and our place in it?  Will the walls we create to “protect” ourselves eventually become our prisons, keeping us from seeing, understanding and relating to the rest of the world?

When I was a boy, Roger and Eilene built a wall between their home and ours. It made it much harder for my siblings and me to visit them when they were swimming in their pool, but we persisted.  A couple of years later, they sold their home and moved.  While I don’t know how much we contributed to that decision, I suspect their wall didn’t accomplish what they hoped.  That is my experience with walls.  They seldom provide what we desire.

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

When Condemning Genital Mutilation Is Racist

I am universally opposed to genital mutilation. It does not matter to me if your religion considers the alteration of the human sexual organs divinely ordained or your culture finds it morally defensible.  I think it should be against the law and physicians and parents who mutilate the sexual organs of their children should be punished.  I applaud the nearly universal condemnation of Jumana Nagarwala, the Muslim emergency room physician, arrested for committing female genital mutilation on several young girls.  I also think much of this public outcry is racist.  It is more about the hatred of Muslims than concern for these children.

Why would I make such an outrageous statement?

As a victim and perpetrator of religiously ordained and culturally approved genital mutilation, I find it suspect when Christian and Jewish Americans who circumcise their sons suddenly become ardent opponents of genital mutilation. If altering the sexual organs of Muslim children is so appalling, how do we justify what we do?  How are our justifications for circumcision any nobler than Muslim justifications for a clitoridectomy?  Both procedures are based on religious and cultural opinion rather than good science.  And why do we use a medical term like circumcision for what we do and a pejorative term like mutilation for what some Muslims do?  Circumcision is clearly the mutilation of the male genitalia.

Let me make this clear. I am not defending the actions of Jumana Nagarwala or the parents of the children she mutilated.   I universally oppose genital mutilation.   Therefore, I cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Christian and Jewish Americans using this incident as one more opportunity to demonize Muslim people, many of whom also oppose genital mutilation.  This is racist.  I will also oppose attempts by some Muslim people to defend genital mutilation as culturally relative and worthy of tolerance.  My opposition to their argument is not racist, if it is based on a universally applied principle.

I understand this is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one as we sort through issues of culture, privilege and racism. As a white, male American, I must be very careful of what and whom I critique.  My privileged position makes is easy to identify and condemn the flaws in others.  I must be constantly aware of how my prejudice impacts my opinions.  As I make judgments of other people, I must carefully sort out those judgments that are racist from those that are moral.

For example, when I began attending public school graduations at my children’s urban schools, I was forced to examine my judgments of the black families sitting around me. They were loud and boisterous, interrupting the proceedings with cheers and shouts.  Initially, based on my cultural preferences, I judged them rude and obnoxious.  Only later did it occur to me that high school graduation, which I had grown up seeing as normative and expected, is a cause of great celebration for a marginalized group.  My judgment of them was racist.

On the other hand, raising children in a diverse setting, I also became aware of the higher levels of the use of corporal punishment by black parents. In black culture, the physical punishment of children is often tolerated, defended and even celebrated.  Though there are some good explanations for why many black parents utilize corporal punishment, I oppose corporal punishment for children.  I oppose this behavior in parents of all races and ethnicities.

This moral position does not give me the right to target black parents for my condemnation. That would be racist. There are plenty of white parents who still whip their children.  It does, however, allow me to oppose any argument that defends corporal punishment as either a black cultural distinctive or a conservative Christian hallmark.  I don’t care what your parents, religion, or culture taught you.  Beating your child is wrong.

The problem, whether we’re dealing with genital mutilation, corporal punishment, or a variety of other human behaviors, is when we condemn another group or race for a behavior we tolerate. When we do so, we are speaking out of racial prejudice rather than moral outrage.  Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to address the acceptance and prevalence of that behavior in our own group or culture.  Looking through the windows of someone else’s house only distracts us from our own housecleaning.

This is why I find the Facebook posts calling for Jumana Nagarwala’s punishment in the ugliest terms so disturbing. It smacks of hatred and racism.  Racism is most dangerous when it wraps itself in moral indignation, focusing on another group’s imperfections rather than on our own complicity.  When Christian and Jewish American’s finally abandon our fixation on altering male genitalia, I will be less suspicious of our condemnations of Jumana Nagarwala.

Redecorating the White House

Redecorating the White House

I need to pace myself. As my friends of color remind me, the race for justice isn’t a sprint; it is a grueling marathon.  They worry that the surge of interest in justice and equality may be the fad of the day and not a cultural shift.  That is a fair critique.  When it comes to fighting for justice, most white people are out of shape.  Having never had to walk up hill or against the wind, we grow exhausted quickly.  So I need to pace myself.

I cannot attend every march, protest or meeting. I cannot read every article. I cannot generate outrage for every Trump action. I cannot focus on every injustice. My black daughter-in-law wrote these words to me after the election,

“This whole “racism” issue is new to you. For me, it is a constant in my life.  You cannot let your newfound knowledge and first-hand experiences of racism consume you. There is nothing good that will come of that. You cannot change the world despite your best intentions to make it a better place for your daughter. It breaks my heart that she will have her own experiences, because despite how far we have come, we still have not gone far enough. My advice is to seek joy, seek love, and find reasons to smile”  

I appreciate her advice. I’m slowly learning how to be both passionate about justice and life.  Too often, in these past three months, I’ve allowed my anger and depression about the election of Donald Trump to diminish other parts of my life.  While I don’t want to return to my past complacency, I also want to find some balance. How do I discern between what is ugly and what is an actual threat to liberty, justice and democracy?

In sorting through the words and actions of the Trump administration, I’m trying to determine the appropriate level of outrage – to pace myself. I can’t treat every tweet as a national crisis.  I’m sorting Trump actions into three categories – redecorating, remodeling and gutting the American political and cultural system.  Trump has the right to redecorate the White House, but he doesn’t get to gut it.


While I oppose many of Trump’s executive orders, they are mostly redecorating. Executive orders move the furniture, repaint the walls, change the pictures and alter the curtains.  This can still have a profound effect on the building.  You can change a space from warm and inviting to cold and unwelcoming.  However, redecorating doesn’t alter the structural integrity of the building.

Think about it. Most of Trump’s executive orders rescinded the executive orders of President Obama.  While these orders can do damage to people, they do not forever change our democratic system.  Indeed, they are part of our system.  We allow our presidents – for better or worse – wide discretion when it comes to implementing our laws.  Those of us who applauded many of President Obama’s orders need to accept Trump’s right to make his own.

We also need to remember how temporary those orders can be. If Trump can rescind the actions of the Obama administration, the next president can rescind those of Donald Trump.  While it is appropriate to oppose the executive orders of Trump, I try to remember that they are redecorating.


I am more afraid of how Trump and a Republican Congress could alter our democracy. Passing or changing our laws is not redecorating.  That is remodeling.  New laws knock out a wall, add a new room or change the location of doors and windows.  These changes have a more permanent effect on the building.  They can alter how and who can use the building.  Adding a ramp allows more people into the house.  Destroying one leaves certain people outside.

Remodeling can be dangerous. If you remove a weight bearing wall, you can destroy the structural integrity of the building.  It can collapse and kill those inside.  Remodeling can also be helpful.  In my opinion, Obamacare – which was a law rather than an executive order – shored up a section of our building that was in peril of collapse.  Even the Republicans seem to realize this as they cautiously attempt to dismantle it.

So, as much as I am monitoring Trump’s executive orders, the laws passed by this Congress deserve my fuller attention. Laws can significantly alter our democracy in both positive and negative ways.  When both Trump and the Republican Congress agree on something that is ugly or unjust, we need to resist.

We also need to hope our system of checks and balances works, that the courts continue to protect that system from laws that might destroy it. While the Supreme Court is an imperfect institution, it has generally kept our democracy from crumbling.  The courts have the ability to challenge both executive orders and newly minted laws.  They are the building inspectors.  The recent challenge to Trump’s executive order on immigration gives me some hope.


What should keep all of us awake at night are attempts to gut the democratic system. Some aren’t satisfied with redecorating or remodeling.  They hate the building.  They want to tear it down and replace it with something more to their taste.  They want to build a new structure and surround the grounds with a high wall.  Where our present system is open and inclusive, they want a fortress with dungeons.

Gutting a system can happen in a variety of ways. If Trump or the Congress ignore the courts, they are gutting the system.  If they give themselves powers they’ve never had, they are gutting the system.  If they use their present power to alter the Constitution, they are gutting the system.

The question is not whether Trump can make executive orders or the Congress can pass laws, it is whether they are constitutional.  Do they increase the liberties we presently enjoy as Americans or do they decrease them?  Do they reserve these liberties for some while denying them to others?  These are the questions we should ask ourselves each time we see an executive order, law or governmental action.

I cannot find the energy to oppose every executive order, every bill and every action of Donald Trump and our government. I can accept that not every action of my government will please me.  I can oppose the present redecorating and remodeling while respecting the right of my opponents to govern. What I cannot tolerate is any action that would forever alter our democratic foundations.

Donald Trump is a guest in the White House. As a guest, he can redecorate and even remodel.  He cannot gut the building.  Ultimately, the house belongs to us.

On Martin’s Day

On Martin’s Day

On Saturday, our family attended the 19th Annual Martin Luther King Festival.  It was a wonderful event, full of artistic expression, African and black music, thoughtful speakers and mind expanding discussions.  At the end of the day, we participated in a workshop on the Trauma of Racism.

As an opening exercise for the workshop, the facilitator said, “Beginning with your toes and rising to your head, tense up every muscle in your body. Feet, legs, thighs, abdomen, chest and face.  Close your eyes and hold your breath until I tell you to release.”  When she told us to relax, she said, “What you just experienced is how African-Americans experience every day in a white dominated culture.  We are always tense, always on guard, always holding our breath and there is no release.”

She went on to describe her first visit to Africa and how quickly she began to feel her body relax, her posture straighten, her walk change and her spirit lift. She spoke of her amazement at how it felt to live and breathe in a society where everyone looked just like her, where racism did not exist.  She also shared her dismay at how quickly the tension returned when she entered the airplane to return to the United States.

I can’t fully communicate the power of both that simple exercise and her story. I was profoundly moved and understood the black experience as I had not previously.  For a brief moment, I understood it physically rather than as an abstraction.  I was also deeply embarrassed.  I was embarrassed that this was the first time in my life that I’ve attended any celebration or event to commemorate the birth and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I was embarrassed, that even though I’m raising a black daughter, I’ve spent little energy in intentionally learning about the experience of people of color.  I was embarrassed that there were so few white people at the festival.

I often hear white people complaining that “racial tensions are higher today than they’ve been since the days of the Civil Rights movement.” They often blame this state of affairs on President Obama or Black Lives Matter.  They never suggest that racial tensions might be high because white people continue to resist any responsibility to educate ourselves about what it is like for people of color to live and breathe in America today.  They never acknowledge that “making America great again” is code for making America a place where minority voices are marginalized and silenced again.

Sadly, many white people are not interested in understanding the experience of people of color. We avoid their books, their movies, their events, their Facebook pages and websites.  We seldom ask them to share their experiences.  We do this because our ignorance allows us to sustain the pretense that we bear no responsibility for today’s racial tensions.

Even more troubling, when a person of color tries to share their experience or challenges our narrative, we become defensive. When they speak of the trauma and pain of their experience, we act as if we’re the victims.  How dare they imply that we play any part in their trauma?  They are to blame for rising racial tensions, for the discomfort we’re feeling, even though they’ve never experienced an America that didn’t make them tense.

Today, on Martin’s day, it is fitting for those of us who are white to remember that Martin’s dream is still not a reality. Most of us have done little to address continued injustice.   We’ve been satisfied with legal equality while tolerating cultural inequality.  We’ve defined the Black Lives Matter movement as people of color demanding special privileges rather than victims of racism challenging white privilege.  We’ve refused to see the election of Donald Trump – and not of Barack Obama – as truly indicative of the attitude of many white Americans.

Martin’s Day will not truly become a national holiday until white people join people of color in remembering, acknowledging, listening, learning, addressing, changing and reconciling. Martin’s dream will only become a reality when his holiday is celebrated by everyone.  Only then will racial tension end.  Only then when we all feel the sweet release that comes from living in a nation where everyone is just like us.