Where I Agree With White Supremacists

Where I Agree With White Supremacists

In about 1754 BC, a Babylonian king by the name of Hammurabi had his opinion on the proper human order chiseled onto a large stone. The Code of Hammurabi argued that God had placed him in power to enforce a society where men were considered superior, women were subordinate to men and most people – slaves – were so inferior they could be considered property.  For the next 3500 years, this was how most societies were organized.

In 1776 AD, Thomas Jefferson offered a new and controversial opinion about the proper order of humanity. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argued that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  While this more enlightened opinion was certainly a departure from thousands of years of human political thought, we shouldn’t celebrate it as a triumph of human emancipation.

Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson probably meant “all males” when he wrote his declaration. His words were a challenge to the privileges of kings and nobility, but did little to alter the remainder of the Code of Hammurabi.  Women were still subordinate, unable to own property or vote.  Jefferson continued to own slaves.  Finally, he based his opinion on the same claim of divine authority.  Why was his opinion superior to that of Hammurabi?  God said so.  However, while Jefferson’s arguments were flawed, the Declaration of Independence was the beginning of a clash between two very different understandings of human order, a struggle which continues today.

The Code of Hammurabi has been – and still is – the worldview of many in the United States. Since 1776, those committed to including more and more types of people in the term “all men” have fought for greater equality against those who believe some – by virtue of their gender or the color of their skin – are superior to others.  Make no mistake; the Civil War was a violent clash of these two worldviews.  The Civil Rights movement was another battle in this effort to defeat a white supremacy built on the Code of Hammurabi.  What we are experiencing in the United States today is another skirmish in that conflict.  When Trump and his supporters say they want to “make America great again,” it is not a call to a Jeffersonian world where all people are equal and have certain unalienable rights.  Roy Moore and his like are calling for a return to a world where the Code of Hammurabi reigned.

As I’ve fought against the minions of Hammurabi over the past forty years, my opinions and arguments have shifted. For example, I once found solace and strength in the idea that the truth of equality was self-evident, ordained by a God who loved and valued every person equally.  Gradually, it became apparent to me that the claim of divine blessing has sustained rather than solved this conflict.  Both Hammurabi and Jefferson argued their worldview was ordained by God.

Sadly, in this clash of worldviews, God has been more of a team mascot than the arbiter of truth. History has shown that religions and sects have aligned on both sides of this conflict.  Racism and sexism – as well as God’s equal regard for all – have often been trumpeted by holy men.  The opinion of God seems largely irrelevant in this struggle.  If we are ever to resolve this conflict over the proper order of humanity, I suspect we have to look beyond religion for aid.

I no longer believe people were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. Equality and rights are not attributes that are bestowed.  If women and people of color have taught us anything, they have demonstrated that equality and rights are the spoils of hard fought battles with the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi.  Perhaps God – or the idea of God – has given the oppressed and marginalized comfort and courage, but it is their blood, sweat and tears that have changed the world.

I have also come to question the validity of the idea of the equality of all people. In this, ironically, I am in agreement with white supremacists.  Not all people are equal.  Some are inferior.  While I believe every person has worth, I am absolutely convinced that many of the defenders of the Code of Hammurabi, of white supremacy and of white and male privilege are inferior human beings. They are not just. They are not good thinkers.  They are not reflective.  They are not well informed.  Indeed, they are attracted to the Code of Hammurabi precisely because it offers them an unfair advantage in a world where they fear competing with brilliant women and people of color.

In recent years, I’ve realized why many conservatives hate the theory of evolution so much. It is not that it challenges their view of God as much as it is an affront to their opinion about themselves.  Evolution does not care whether you are Christian, a white man or an American.  It bestows its blessings without discrimination.  All people are not born equal.  Some are more intelligent, creative, innovative, reflective and compassionate than others and the distribution of these talents has nothing to do with gender or race.  Creating a human order that denies or ignores this reality is detrimental to human society and progress.

This has become my primary objection to racism and sexism. Any understanding of the human order that suggests homogeneity is ordained or preferable is dangerous.  A society, company, or organization dominated by white men will always be inferior.  By excluding the brilliance and creativity of those who are other, it makes the same mistake of European royal families in the past.  Human evolution has determined that inbreeding always results in deformity and inferiority.  Diversity is a hallmark of evolution and the driver of human progress.

For this reason, I am not a proponent of equality for equality’s sake. I am a proponent of equal opportunity, for the leveling a very unleveled playing field.  I am an opponent of racism and sexism because these systems – based on an archaic and non-scientific code – diminish the opportunities for large portions of the human race to flourish.  White supremacy must be opposed, not merely because it is immoral, but because we now fully understand the importance of human diversity.  This is not a political opinion, but a scientifically proven fact.

This is where I and the white supremacists radically disagree. They believe America would be great if we could restore the dominance of white men.  They applaud pictures where all our political leaders are white men.  I find this dangerous and harmful.  A racially diverse nation is dynamic and vibrant.  Systemic racism and sexism make America far less than we can be.

I think white supremacists – though they seldom admit it – do understand this.  They realize at some deep level that – without inordinate power – they may struggle to compete.  When the marchers in Charlottesville chanted, “You will not replace us,” they revealed their deepest fear.  They did not say “you cannot replace us.”  They are smart enough to see the writing on the wall.  Without the Code of Hammurabi, they will be rightly replaced by women and people of color.  This will happen not because their replacements are inferior, but precisely because they are superior.

I hold this truth to be self-evident. All people are not created equal. We are born into an incredibly diverse world.  This reality is an opportunity and not a threat.  Allowing the most talented and thoughtful to lead is good for all of us.  If we are willing to give all people equal rights, then and only then will life, liberty and happiness flourish.

(Special thanks for Yuval Noah Harari, who juxtaposed and critiqued both the Code of Hammurabi and the Declaration of Independence in his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His thoughts provoked mine.)

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White Inferiority

White Inferiority

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, he begins with a fascinating essay about the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War.  He argues that this brief experiment in black empowerment, with blacks voting and holding elected office in the former states of the Confederacy, ended because of white resentment and fear.  The resentment came from seeing their former slaves so quickly elevated to positions of superiority.  The fear came is seeing those same slaves govern effectively.  Coates quotes W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

I’ve thought a lot about that essay and quote in the past week. The parallels to what has happened in the United States over the past year are startling.  While many white conservatives express hatred for Barack Obama and his administration, when challenged to point out his failings they seldom offer much beyond conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric. They never mention his success in pulling the nation out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They ignore his reinvigoration of the Justice Department, his expansion of civil rights and healthcare for many and the lowest number of corruption scandals in modern presidential history. While I know they will never admit it, I suspect many white conservatives resented and feared Obama, not because he was a bad President, but because he was such a good one.

During both the Reconstruction period and the Obama presidency, one of the central tenets of white racism was proven false – white superiority. In both situations, it was not the failings of black leaders that was so infuriating to many whites as much as it was their success.  In both situations, the response of white people was to reassert their dominance.  In the 1890’s, this meant disenfranchising blacks, passing Jim Crow laws and legislating the superiority that had proven so false.  In 2016, this meant electing the most inferior and openly racist of the possible white options for president.  Though my conservative friends like to claim they voted for Trump because they hated Clinton so much, this does not explain why they chose Trump over more worthy Republican white men and women in the primaries.  Whether conscious or not, Trump was a response to a successful black president.

Oddly, all of this has made me reconsider the power of white supremacy in America. There was a time when white racism was built on a conviction of white superiority, but that claim seems increasingly hollow.  People of color are excelling in nearly every area of our national life.  White people are being replaced by people of color in every strata of society.  While whites often diminish their hard won success as some kind of affirmative action, this argument is harder and harder to sustain.  Consider the one place in our culture where there is a clearly level playing field – sports.  In nearly every sport, it is people of color who are the best players.

Or consider the recent events in Charlottesville. The chants of white supremacists reveal a far less confident white psyche.  Gone were the claims of black inferiority that once characterized the Klan.  This generation of white racists chanted “We will not be replaced” instead of “We cannot be replaced.”  In response to “Black lives matter,” they felt the need to argue “White lives matter.”  When a white supremacist has to argue that white lives matter, something significant has shifted.  Gone is their confidence in their ability to succeed in an American meritocracy.  They expose their fears of inferiority even as they champion white supremacy. They guard their white privilege so carefully because they worry that without it they cannot succeed.

For several years, I’ve been worried about white supremacy.  I’ve begun to fear white inferiority.  When people with inferiority complexes hold power, they almost always use that power to reassure themselves and diminish others.  Indeed, only in diminishing others can they feel superior.  For whites with such a complex, electing Donald Trump must have been wonderfully reassuring.  They did not elect him because he represented the best the white race could offer, but because he mirrored their own sense of inferiority.  They saw in him their many insecurities and, every time he claimed something was the best or the greatest, they heard their own defensive bluster.  His election confirmed their hope that they still lived in an America where an inferior white man had more power than any woman or person of color.

Unfortunately, while I understand the events of this past year more deeply, this understanding does not bring me much comfort. Trump’s systemic dismantlement of every Obama policy is too reminiscent of the actions of resentful and fearful whites during the Reconstruction.  “Making America Great Again” is not much different than the efforts of white southerners in the 1880s to make blacks slaves again.  History tells us that whites with an inferiority complex are capable of incredible ugliness to retain their power and privilege.  It is also teaches that liberal whites can be easily distracted.  Much of the impetus for abandoning efforts at reconstructing the South ended when Northern whites faced an economic recession in 1873.

In the days since the Trump election, I have watched many of my white friends distance themselves from the role of racism in our culture and politics. Progressives have spoken out against the identity politics of people of color while completely ignoring the white identity politics of the Republican Party.  Democrats are being told they must reassure the white working class.  Clearly racist policies are being disguised as efforts to combat voter fraud, or eliminate discrimination against whites, or bring back law and order.  These are not new arguments or strategies.  Indeed, they all saw their creation in the 1870s when whites used them to reassert their supremacy.

President Obama often cited the Martin Luther King, Jr quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It fit his hopeful optimism.  President Obama also reassured Ta-Nehisi Coates – in a pre-election interview – that Donald Trump could not win.  I fear this optimism may have blinded him to a historic reality.  The Reconstruction period demonstrated that racial progress gained by the death of nearly 700,000 Americans in four years of bloody conflict could be largely lost in a matter of a few years.  What if the arc of the universe is merely half of a circle leading us back to the immoral place we began?

Such concerns explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates subtitles his book, An American Tragedy. While I share his deep concerns and fears about the Trump presidency and what it reflects, I hope that conclusion premature.  Looking back, I wonder what our nation could have become if white Northern progressives had persisted in their insistence that southern blacks be protected and empowered.  How much sooner would we have elected a black president?  How much stronger would we be as a nation?  That seems such a lost opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, I plan to study the Reconstruction period; a period sadly and intentionally lacking from American education. How did progressives fail?  How was white supremacy able to reassert itself?  How can we avoid such ugliness again?  Unlike President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice.  Justice only comes when those committed to equality combat those, who in their feelings of inferiority, must champion and enforce their superiority.  If our nation is in the midst of a cultural civil war, it is imperative that those of us allied with people of color do not fail them again.  It is time to truly reconstruct America.

The Pretense of Ignorance

The Pretense of Ignorance

In 1965, the United States Congress passed legislation requiring all cigarette packaging to contain the following warning – “Surgeon General’s Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema and May Complicate Pregnancy.”  While part of a larger effort to reduce smoking, there is compelling evidence that these warnings contributed to the 59% decrease in smoking that has occurred since 1965.  Millions of lives were lengthened and billions of dollars in health costs avoided because we used political force and legal regulation to destroy the pretense of ignorance.  People could continue to smoke, but they could no longer pretend they didn’t know it caused cancer.

Publicly proclaiming a truth matters.  Humans have a strong inclination to avoid negative information, especially when that information reminds us of an ugly truth.  Being repeatedly reminded of something we would rather ignore makes it difficult for us to sustain a delusion.  Indeed, studies have shown that the larger and more prominent the warnings on cigarette packaging, the greater likelihood that someone will quit smoking.  You can’t be subtle if you want societal change.  This is true whether you’re talking about smoking or racism.

Think about this for a moment. How would our country be different if we had applied the same approach to fighting and ending systemic racism as we did to reducing smoking?  What if we had used our political will to destroy the pretense of ignorance and exposed the evidence of systemic racism all around us?  What if we had publicly proclaimed the truth about systemic racism by requiring labels in the many places where it has or is occurring?

For example, we know hundreds of FHA financed housing developments were built from 1945 until the early 1970s with stipulations that people of color could not purchase or live in those homes. If you are white, there is a high likelihood your grandparents or parents purchased one of those homes and lived in one of those developments.  These policies intentionally segregated our society and forced people of color into ghettos. This is an ugly truth many of us ignore.

Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court finally prohibited these discriminatory policies with a 6-0 decision (three justices lived in such a development and recused themselves), most white Americans were oblivious. The court ruled against the practice, but did nothing to challenge the pretense of ignorance.  How would our nation be different if they had also required truth in labeling?  Imagine hundreds of suburban housing developments with these words underneath their entrance signs, “This subdivision, in violation of the US Constitution, was intentionally and maliciously created to exclude and marginalize people of color.”

Or how about the banks that refused to provide loans to people of color, even when they meet every qualification except white skin? Some white people know about redlining, but most of us have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  We can pretend white people are wealthier because we work harder and not because the game has been fixed in our favor.  We can argue that people of color live in certain neighborhoods because of their desire to live near each other. Imagine if every bank in the US had a large sign on their door that read, “This bank, in violation of the US Constitution, created ghettos by refusing to provide people of the color with legitimate loans for housing and business.”

Or how about the many towns that had laws on their books denying people of color permission to live, work or shop within their boundaries? It didn’t just happen in the South.  You would be hard pressed to find any organized municipality without this type of activity in its past.  Indeed, many municipalities were first organized to either exclude or remove people of color from predominantly white areas.  If your grandparents or parents lived in such communities, they probably voted for the officials who created such restrictions.  What if every single one of these towns and villages had to add these words below their welcome signs, “This community historically and shamefully denied people of color their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Or, if this labeling seems radical, how about at least acknowledging the most heinous acts of racial discrimination and hatred in our past? Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 incidents of whites lynching a black person or a white sympathizer.  What if Congress had simply required every single town where a lynching occurred to raise a monument with the words, “Never Again.” Certainly, most white people would agree that lynching was a violation of the most basic human and civil rights and should never occur again.  Wouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, unlike with smoking, our white controlled society has consistently denied, diminished, obscured and ignored our complicity in some very ugly and racist habits. We’ve done all in our power to maintain our pretense of ignorance.  We’ve refused to publicly acknowledge what our grandparents and parents intentionally and maliciously did to people of color.  We’ve sanitized our text books.  We’ve limited the truth in labeling to a few museums and plaques.

In so doing, we have done terrible damage not only to people of color, but to our national psyche. Donald Trump and his racist policies are only possible because millions of white people have been able to sustain the pretense of ignorance.  Only this pretense makes it possible for a presidential candidate say “black communities are disasters, full of crime and decay” with a straight face.  Only this pretense allows mobs of white people to scream “Make America Great Again” without even a hint of shame or sarcasm.  By not acknowledging our past, we have endangered our future.

Imagine for a moment a society where the Supreme Court ruled smoking caused cancer, but didn’t require any significant changes in governmental policy or legal regulations. Imagine a society where millions of people died of lung cancer and emphysema every year, but most people continued to express puzzlement about the cause.  Imagine a society where people were outraged not by these deaths, but by any suggestion that smoking was the cause of societal ills.  Does that seem ridiculous?

It shouldn’t.

That is precisely the kind of society we have created in response to historic and systemic racism. Many white people are more outraged by the accusation of system racism than its reality. Is it really any surprise that white people resist the idea of reparations?  We haven’t even accepted and acknowledged what our grandparents and parents did.  Instead, we have chosen the pretense of ignorance.

I see this pretense all around me. I see it in politics, in the media, and in the conversations I have with friends and family.  I see it in myself and my ignorance about many historic facts.  Sadly, without some national truth in labeling, I see little hope.  As our national battle against smoking has taught us, you can’t be subtle if you want societal change.

Postscript: For those interested in being less ignorant, I would highly recommend the book, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein.  Much of my new understanding of the facts in this post come from that book.

Making America Unsafe

Making America Unsafe

Think about this. If you were pulled over by the police and asked to prove that you were a United States citizen, how would you prove it?  How would you feel about the question?  Would you be angry?  Would you be insulted?  Perhaps this seems a ridiculous scenario.  If you’re white, I suppose it is.  If you are a person of color, it is becoming a common experience.

On February 7th, Muhammad Ali Jr., 44, and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, arrived at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida airport and were detained by immigration officers, even though they had US passports. Muhammed Ali, Jr. was repeatedly asked about his name, his religion and his behavior.  After several hours, he was finally released without explanation for his detention or with an apology.

Think about this. The son of one of the most famous black men in American history was racially and religiously profiled, subjected to interrogation and denied his basic civil rights.  Think about that.  If this is how a person of color with notoriety and power is treated, how do you think immigration officers are treating people without such a pedigree?

Last year, Senator Tim Scott, who is black, spoke from the floor of the Congress about how many times he had been pulled over by white police officers. This included one incident where Capital police denied him entry to the Congress and questioning his credentials.  Senator Scott is not a liberal agitator trying to enflame racial tensions.  He is a conservative Republican.

Think about that. A black United States Senator – one of the most powerful people in our nation – is no more immune to racial profiling than any other person of color.  You can dress in a suit.  You can carry identification, but – if a white person finds you suspicious – you can be detained.  Think about this.  If this is how a person of color in Congress is treated, how do you think police officers are treating people of color on the streets?

Last week, hundreds of undocumented immigrants were rounded up in raids by immigration officers. For some of these people, the officers had documentation proving they were in the US illegally.  However, they also detained many people on the suspicion that they were here illegally.  What was the basis of their suspicion? These people were Latino. When detained, illegal immigrants were required to prove they had been in the country for more than two years.  Others were asked to provide documentation of their legal status or US citizenship.

Think about this. People of color are being asked to provide verification of something that white Americans earn simply by the color of their skin – US citizenship.  Other than when reentering the United States, I have never been asked to prove my citizenship.  For people of color, this is becoming a common occurrence.  Think about that.  The most basic of American rights – the assumption of innocence – is being denied to millions because of the color of their skin or their religious faith.

Mr. Trump has suggested his immigration policies are intended to restore law and order. Unfortunately, his policies show little respect for the rule of law, the idea that our legal system should treat all persons equally and fairly.  Mr. Trump seems far more interested in “orders” that grant unrestrained power to individuals and organizations.  Racial profiling, no matter what the justification, is always racist.

Eighty years ago, in another nation, a national leader began to treat those who were not white, blond haired and blue eyed with suspicion. Think about that.  Adolf Hitler convinced white people to look away as he systematically reduced the civil rights of minority groups.  He required Jewish people to wear a yellow star.  Eventually, his policies justified far more than marginalization.  They justified concentration camps and gas chambers.  Think about this.  Incredible evil was done in Germany under the guise of law and order.

I am certain some white people will read my last paragraph and conclude I’ve overreacted. I hope they’re right.  Unfortunately, when it comes to human and civil rights, we cannot afford to underestimate the danger of their erosion.  People of color already know the danger.  White people, as in Germany, have the luxury of wishful thinking.

Think about this. Yesterday, a Latino friend, who has lived in the United States for over twenty years, told me, “For the first time in my life, I carry my Green Card with me at all times.  I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t.”  Think about that.  Mr. Trump says his policies are designed to make us safer.  Unfortunately, when he says “us,” he means white people.  Everyone else is less safe in Trump’s America.