Never. Not Once

Never. Not Once

Note to my white self…

In light of the recent events at a Starbucks coffee shop, it seems prudent to understand what such incidents teach you as a white person.

You have never been asked to leave a coffee shop because you haven’t purchased a beverage yet.

You have never had a store clerk call the police to have you removed from the premises.

You have never been arrested for asking to use the restroom.

Never. Not once.

You have never had black men yell “Honky” and throw garbage at you from a passing vehicle.

You have never had a person cross to the other side of the street when they see you.

You have never had people stare right through you when you said “hello.”

You have never had someone tell you they hate you because of the color of your skin.

Never. Not once.

You have never had a security guard follow you around in a store.

You have never had a police officer stop you on the street and ask what you’re doing.

You have never been pulled over for a broken tail light.

When you have been pulled over, you have never worried about being killed.

You have never had a police officer tell you that you fit the description of a suspect in a crime.

Never.  Not once.

You have never been told your natural hair isn’t appropriate for work.

You have never had someone act disgusted when they accidently touched you.

You have never worried that you didn’t get a job because of the color of your skin.

You have never had someone touch your hair without your permission.

You have never been told you should move back to Europe where you came from.

You have never read death threats written on a bathroom stall.

Never. Not once.

You have never been complimented for being “more honest or articulate or competent” than most white people.

You have never had someone ask “What are you?”

You have never been called a “boy” since you became an adult.

You have never had someone lock their doors when you walked by their car.

You have never had someone ask why white people like “steak and potatoes” so much.

You have never had a customer ask for a different employee to serve them.

You have never had to have a black person come to your aid and insist you be treated with respect.

Never. Not once.

Yet you know people of color who have experienced many – if not all – of these incidents (or their equivalents), often repeatedly.  Because of this reality…

You should never think your experience as a white person in the United States is the same as the experience of a person of color.  Every experience – even the most trivial – has the potential for discrimination and danger for a person of color.

You should never deny the persistent and systemic racism in the United States.  There is no place in the United States where a person of color is immune from the impacts of racism.

You should never forget how often you benefit from the privileges of being white.  There is no place in the United States where a white person loses the power and privilege of being white.

You should never diminish the seriousness of any instance where a person of color is treated with disrespect.  Micro-aggressions are not minor instances of racism.  They are the tip of a huge, submerged system of racism

You should never stop addressing the racism within yourself and within our society.  If people of color must be constantly vigilant, so must you.

Other white people will be frustrated with your continuing focus on racial equality, dignity and justice.  Don’t listen to them.  Don’t waver.  Don’t look away.

Never. Not once.


The Injustice of Charity

The Injustice of Charity

My daughter attends the performing arts school connected with our much maligned urban public school district.  It is a school located in the middle of a low income neighborhood with a high predominance of children of color.  While we love this school, we realize it faces many challenges that other schools avoid.  One of those challenges is how to understand its “adoption” by a large white suburban church.

Years ago and before I adopted a black daughter, I would have applauded their efforts to provide resources, volunteers and assistance to an urban school.  I would have appreciated their acts of charity and their sensitivity to the needs of these children.  I wouldn’t have cringed when they described their mission as “service to poor, underprivileged children of color in the inner city.”  I wouldn’t have understood how unjust such acts of charity can be.

Today, I understand what it means to adopt someone.  To do so is to claim them as your own.  Treating your adopted child differently than a birth child is the ugliest of acts.  So it offends me when a large group of white people claim they are adopting a large group of children of color.  Especially when I know the schools that their children attend are in modern buildings with higher paid teachers using the best technology.  Somehow planting flowers and donating coats doesn’t seem equivalent.  While I suspect they are using the word “adoption” in the loosest sense, I wish they wouldn’t.  It reinforces my suspicion that they don’t fully understand the society in which they live.

I wish they would ask themselves why the children at my daughter’s school are poor.  It isn’t God ordained.  The poverty of these black and Latino children is systemic and intentional.  It has been perpetrated for centuries by the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of the volunteers.  There is a terrible irony is “helping” those who we’ve systematically denied the most basic of human resources.  I can’t help wondering if these volunteers realize the parents of these children may be serving them their “value meal” at the McDonald’s drive up window or roofing their house for the lowest bid.

These volunteers recognize that these children are “underprivileged,” but I wonder if they connect that with their own privilege.  These children and their families aren’t lazy.  Many of the parents work two jobs.  These children and their families aren’t satisfied. They dream of college and financial security.  These children and their families aren’t different from the children and the families of the volunteers except in one very important way.  They aren’t white.   They do not have the privileges that the volunteers and their families take for granted.

When I read their description of my daughter’s school and their obvious pride in their acts of charity, I sense their ignorance more than their malice. They want so badly to think of themselves as good people. They want to make a real difference in the world. They are doing more than most of their white peers.  So I hesitate to criticize.  What harm are they doing?  Isn’t our school better off with them than without them?

I used to think the answer to that question was an obvious “Yes!”  Now I am not so sure. I wonder if their presence simply reinforces the status quo.  White people are presented to children of color as “givers” even though historically they have been the opposite.  I worry that these volunteers are using my daughter’s school to justify their privilege and escape any deeper accountability for the systemic injustices built into our society and so vividly exemplified by the differences between our schools.  A recent mega survey in the state of Pennsylvania found that schools with a majority white population received on average between $3,000-$4,000 more per student in educational resource.  The adopted children are being neglected.

Do these volunteers understand this inequity?  Do they care?  Are they committed to eliminating this gap?  Do they realize that this injustice in our education system is simply one manifestation of the injustice of charity?  Most of the foundations in the United States are giving away money that was created by white men through the exploitation of people of color.  We are the robber barons.  What we give in charity is simply what we’ve stolen in the past.  This paradox requires the victims of systemic racism to express gratefulness to their oppressors.  No wonder we react so badly to people chanting “black lives matter.”  We who are white have been conditioned to expect gratitude instead of challenge, appreciation instead of criticism, and adulation instead of censure.

I wish these white volunteers would REALLY adopt our school, that they would commit to treating these children as their own.  With their privilege, they could accomplish so much. They could express their outrage in this treatment of their children, demanding their political representatives alter the formulas that determine school funding.  They could require an explanation for why some of their children are being treated with so much less regard than others.  I know the power of an enraged white parent.  Government officials and school administrators fear their wrath.   I wish, when these officials explained the need to increase taxes, these white people responded, “These are our children you are talking about.  Do whatever is necessary!”

I suppose that is wishful thinking.

The truth is that those of us who have adopted a child of color are rare.  We cannot expect those “playing” at adoption to fully understand the ramifications of loving a child of color.  It changes you  – and how you see our society  – completely.  Without that, I suppose planting flowers and donating coats might seem sufficient and even charitable.

To me, it just seems unjust.

Is White Pride Even Possible?

Is White Pride Even Possible?

White people often argue that if there can be Black Pride, Native American Pride and Latino Pride, why shouldn’t there also be White Pride?  Why can’t white people be proud of their heritage and skin color?  Why can’t there be white history month or an annual parade?  Why is appreciating your race applauded for people of color, but seen as racist when expressed by white people?  Isn’t this an unjust double standard?

While – on the surface – this complaint may sound reasonable, it seriously – and often intentionally – misunderstands the reasons that black, Native American and Latino people are proud.  While celebrating their heritage and skin color is part of these movements, people of color are primarily proud of something that we, as a white people, cannot fully understand or claim.  They are proud that they and their ancestors survived.

In each instance, these movements emerged in the face of horrible oppression, discrimination and violence, largely perpetrated by the dominant white culture.  In the face of a culture that defined and treated them as less human, these movements asserted their pride in their self-worth.  They were proud of being black, Native American or Latino in a society that questioned their value and threatened their existence. They were also proud of their resistance, resilience and perseverance. They celebrated those instances when people like them, not only survived, but thrived.

This makes the claim of White Pride suspect, especially when in response to expressions of Black, Native American and Latino Pride.  What is the white person proud of?  Are we proud of Christopher Columbus, the Trail of Tears, and hundreds of broken treaties?  Are we proud of chattel slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow?  Are we proud of the economic exploitation of farm workers and the dehumanization of Latino immigrants?  For five hundred years, white people in the America have thrived by using and abusing people of color.  White Shame, rather than White Pride, seems a more appropriate response to this history.

Of course, those asserting White Pride will remind you that not every white person has had it easy in America.  They will note the experiences of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants, who were often mistreated and exploited when they first landed in America.  While these stories are tragically true, they obscure an important aspect to this oppression.  In each circumstance, these groups were initially identified as “less than white.”  In early American history, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism was the dominant identity.  These darker skinned European groups were initially mistreated because they were identified as non-white in some circumstances and less white in others.

In this context, offering Irish, Italian and other European immigrants as examples of resistance, resilience and perseverance does not equate to White Pride.  If anything, it should be support for Immigrant Pride.  Unfortunately, as we are discovering in the present rhetoric around immigration, the dominant culture have always been suspicious and abusive toward immigrants.  Those who find the story of the Irish immigrants cause for pride should be ardent supporters of Latino immigrants.  Unfortunately, unlike blacks, Native Americans and Latinos, the story of Irish, Italian and other European immigrants is one of integration rather than segregation.

These groups – based on their “nearly white” skin – were eventually offered a path to white assimilation.  Indeed, they earned their white citizenship, not by identifying with people of color, but by demonstrating their derision and disregard for people of color.  The New York City Riots of 1863 are one such example of this white rite of passage.  Irish immigrants, upset about the draft and the employment of freed black slaves, rampaged for three days in Manhattan, killing 120 black people, burning down a black children’s orphanage and forcing thousands of people of color to permanently flee the city.  Acts like this contributed to Irish credibility and their eventual assimilation into the white establishment.  Sadly, a chief qualification for “whiteness” has always been disdain for people of color.

Of course, some of those asserting White Pride will point out that not all white people have participated in the oppression of people of color, that some white people have stood side by side with blacks, Native Americans and Latinos throughout history, that thousands of white men died to free the slaves.  While this is certainly true, it is important to remember that more white men died to defend slavery than to emancipate slaves.  It is equally important to acknowledge that there are far more statues honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee than the general who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.  While it would be admirable if White Pride was about lifting up and honoring those who have opposed the oppression of people of color throughout history, this is seldom the desire of those proposing White Pride.  Indeed, it is usually just the opposite.

In an August 2017 Washington Post/ABC poll, pollsters found about 9% of Americans found holding neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable.  This equates to nearly 22 million Americans and nearly 25% of white Americans.  This is a group that is also generally supportive of White Pride.  For many of them, White Pride is a pride in a past where white people committed genocide on Native Americans, enslaved millions of black people and exploited people of color in countless ways.  In this cultural context, it is nearly impossible to proclaim White Pride without associating yourself – directly or indirectly – with a celebration of some of the most horrific actions of the last five hundred years.

When you assert your White Pride, you are not merely proud of the color of your skin.  You are not proud of the resilience of your Irish ancestors.  You are not glorifying that minority of white people who have sometimes defended or allied with people of color.  In our present culture, White Pride is a signal that you are not ashamed of the actions of your ancestors, of people who systematically abused, tortured and killed people of color.

There is certainly an argument that many poor white people have much in common with poor people of color.  The dominant culture has often left poor white people behind as well.  Many poor white people have had to be resilient in order to survive.  Poor white people should be natural allies to people of color.  Unfortunately, instead of being sympathetic to the people of color with whom they have shared this experience, many poor white people have counted it as a point of pride that “they are still better than blacks, Native Americans or Latinos.”  Unlike the Black, Native American and Latino Pride movements, White Pride is the only such movement that relies primarily on the argument of superiority to unite its adherents.

It seems self-evident that, in our present culture, White Pride is suspect at best and shameful are worst.  The only kind of white pride that might have some credibility would be a pride in the capacity of white people to acknowledge our checkered past and work to rectify the injustices perpetuated by our ancestors.  While this kind of movement is gaining some traction, in our present culture, this identity is still most often derided as unnecessary and inappropriate white guilt.  According to this narrative, white people have nothing to be ashamed of.

Indeed, that may be the very definition of White Pride.  Many white people – whether they acknowledge or not – are proud of their ignorance of past injustice, of their blindness to present racism and of their false confidence in their “well deserved” privilege.  Don’t confuse us with the facts, especially when those facts are so damning.  Don’t tell us you’ve been mistreated when we just can’t see it.  Don’t disturb our conviction that we deserve everything we’ve got.

Is white pride even possible?

Probably not.

Worse Than Slavery

Worse Than Slavery

In conversations with other white people, I often hear them say, “Slavery was so long ago.  When are black people going to let the past be the past?”  I used to respond by reminding them that the oppression of black people continued long after their emancipation in 1865.  While that is certainly true, my response inadvertently reinforced a common white myth – that slavery was the worst of the black experience in America and things have progressively improved in the years since.  Sadly, my recent studies of the black experience have taught me that there were things worse than slavery.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name.  Like many other books I’ve read this year, it deconstructs much of what I thought I knew about the black experience.  Blackmon focuses his research and writing on the years following the end of the Reconstruction, when Southern whites systematically created a culture where blacks were returned to lives of servitude, violence and death.

In the 1870s, across the southern states, legislatures passed legal codes with the undisguised intention of returning people of color to a status as close to slavery as possible.  Blacks were legally required to be employed, yet stripped of the right to quit a job.  Those considered vagrant, which was a nearly impossible accusation for a black person to dispute, were arrested, charged fines they could not possibly pay and contracted by the state to farms, mines and factories.  Thousands and thousands of black men, women and teens were caught in this trap.  Indeed, eventually, white company agents would tour black communities, identify the strongest black men and hand that list to white sheriffs who would trump up charges. Since even speaking loudly around a white person was against the law, it wasn’t difficult to find an excuse to arrest someone.  Eventually, even this artifice was abandoned.  Blacks were simply arrested without any charge and sent off to prison.

All of this was possible because of an unfortunate loophole in the 13th Amendment, which forbid “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Essentially, white southerners made it nearly impossible for black people to avoid committing a crime.  Once a crime of any type was charged, slavery and involuntary servitude was once again permissible.

Blackmon documents countless instances where black men and women received what essentially became life sentences for the most minor crimes.  The companies that “contracted” to use these “criminals” in their farms, mines and factories were allowed to charge them for their food, clothing, lodging and medical care.  The contracts allowed the companies to “extend the contracts until the criminal had paid their full debt.”  For many black people, this meant never leaving those farms, mines or factories.  Of course, for most of these “criminals,” a life sentence wasn’t very long.  The conditions in these farms, mines and factories were so horrible that Alabama state inspectors found the mortality rate to be nearly 50% a year.  This was something they reported, but saw no need to rectify.

In many ways, this system of oppression was even worse than slavery.  It stripped a black person of something they had come to treasure – freedom.  It actually treated black people with less respect that slavery.  Since they were no longer seen as the property of a white person, they even lost those legal protections.  During slavery, slaves had considerable economic value and losing a slave to illness, injury or death was a loss to a white person.  Since a white person were financially compensated when this loss was caused by another white person, there was a certain macabre protection is being owned by a white person.  In this new system of oppression, those who were arrested and sent to farms, mines and factories had no such protection.  They were expendable, easily replaced by the next “criminal.”  Complete devaluation was added to the abuse, torture and rape that had epitomized the slavery system.

This system existed unchecked in the southern United States until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the Secret Service to begin investigating rumors of “slavery and involuntary servitude” in the southern states.  In the course of the investigation, President Roosevelt invited the prominent black spokesperson Booker T. Washington and his family to the White House for dinner.  In his book, Blackmon chronicles the response of southern politicians.  Senator Tillman of South Carolina said, “Now that Roosevelt has eaten with the nigger Washington, we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to keep them in their place.”  The Governor the Georgia said, “No southerner can respect any white man who would eat with a negro.”  The Memphis Press Scimitar called the meal, “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.”  This was the response of southern whites while Roosevelt’s investigators were uncovering the horror chambers that were southern farms, mines and factories.

In the ten years following Roosevelt’s first investigations, countless incidents of “slavery and involuntary servitude” were exposed across the south.  Many white people were indicted.  Most were found not guilty by all white juries.  Several of the blacks who gave witness to their slavery and torture were murdered and lynched.  Not a single white person was punished for these deaths.  Southern state governors and legislatures resisted the courts at every step.  Only the dogged determination of federal prosecutors challenged the status quo.  Gradually, through one case after another, the underpinnings of contract slavery were slowly dismantled.  By 1912, the practice of contracting black “criminals” to farms, mines and factories was reluctantly abandoned across the south.

This is not to suggest the criminalization of being black ended in America.  Nor does this mean that black prisoners were not used by the state to do labor.  However, what did end was a system that made the lives of many black people worse than slavery.  No longer could a minor crime be used as justification for a lifetime of slavery and eventual death.

This history is important because we, as white people, need to understand that 1865 was not the low point in the black experience in America.  It can easily be argued that the very worst time to be black in America was in about 1903.  White people often say, “Slavery was so long ago,” without any understanding of when slavery ended.  White people often ask, “When are black people going to let the past be the past?” without any understanding of the horrors of that past.

One of my deepest shocks in reading Blackmon’s book was how many names of famous families, companies and politicians I recognized.  The cream of southern white culture was intricately involved in the system of industrial slavery.  These family names adorn southern cities and streets.  These companies remain southern mainstays.  There are statues honoring many of these politicians across the south.

This white complicity in horror is what makes it so difficult for us to move on as a nation when it comes to issues of racism.  We cannot, as a nation, both regret and celebrate the horrors of our past.  We, as white people, must choose our heroes.  Will they be those who resisted the emancipation and civil rights of people of color at every step or those who fought for them?

We who are white should not expect the black citizens of this country to forget the past until the white citizens of this country are finally ready to honestly acknowledge that past.

Whitewashing Slavery

Whitewashing Slavery

In 2015, the Texas Board of Education introduced a social studies curriculum that came under wide criticism for its whitewashing of the brutalities of slavery in the American South.  One of the more damning revisions was the statement, “The treatment of enslaved Africans varied.  Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly.”

Let’s be perfectly clear.  That is racist bullshit.

An honest statement would read, “In a vast majority of instances slaves were brutalized, raped, tortured and forever separated from parents, spouses and children for the economic profit of their abusers.”  Citing exceptions to this rule can have only one purpose – to diminish the horrors of slavery. Owning another human being was never an act of kindness.  Considering another person as your property is evil.  Indeed, the inclusion of the term “masters” in a modern textbook is deeply disturbing, reinforcing the racist inference that white people are inherently superior to black people.  Those who owned slaves were not “masters.”  They were monsters.

Unfortunately, the whitewashing of slavery is epidemic in America.  In conversations about slavery, I often hear white people comment that there were black slave owners.  As with the “kind master” trope, the rare exception is offered as proof that slavery was either less horrible or more justifiable.  These types of statements are not designed to educate people, but to misrepresent the realities of slavery.  Imagine for a moment if someone said, “The treatment of Jews in concentration camps varied.  Some Jews reported that their guards treated them kindly.”  Even if this were true in some rare circumstance, such statements are morally abhorrent.  They misdirect and obscure, allowing the hearer or reader to avoid confronting the horrific.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.  It is a book too painful to read quickly. The title comes from an interview with a former slave, who when asked to recount his experiences as a slave, replied, “The half has never been told.”  In response, Baptist does his best to communicate the untold half, carefully documenting the brutalities of slavery.  Though I’ve been educating myself about slavery for several years, his portrayals have been horrifying, forcing me to abandon many misconceptions about slavery.

For example, according to Baptist’s research, if the Texas Board of Education wanted to improve their textbooks, they could add a statement saying, “The sexual abuse of female slaves varied.  Some slaves reported that they were only occasionally raped.”  The high incidence of bi-racial children should be evidence enough of the systemic rape of black slaves.  However, both the accounts of slave owners and slaves made it clear that the sexual exploitation of female slaves was nearly universal.  Thomas Jefferson may have expressed noble sentiments about equality, but his relationship with Sally Hemming  is probably best described as rape.  If the President of the United States casually justified such behavior, we can assume it represented a national ethos.

For nearly a hundred years, while southern Americans cultivated a society of chivalry, chastity and honor, these same champions of moral rectitude were systemically raping millions of black women and girls.  When we hear claims that the Confederacy was protecting their way of life, we must understand that this way of life involved the most pervasive rape culture in the history of humanity. Don’t believe the propaganda about the South fighting for state’s rights. Thousands of white men fought in Civil War to defend their right to rape black women at will.  They also fought to protect one of the most brutal economic systems in human history.

According to Baptist’s research, between 1800 and 1860, the production of cotton in the American South increased by 400% even though there were no technological advances introduced for the planting and harvesting of cotton.  This is extraordinary because economists have historically concluded that, absent a technological advance, this kind of dramatic rise in productivity is impossible. Of course, nearly all of their models are predicated on the concept of hired labor.

Sadly, the explanation for this unheard of increase in productivity is fairly simple – torture.  Baptist goes to great lengths to chronicle the introduction of “pushing” across the cotton plantations of the American South.   This technique, documented in letters and pamphlets from that time, involved selecting three or four of the best workers on a plantation, pushing them to work at maximum capacity for 12 hours a day, and punishing all those who produced less than these workers.  The system was simple.  Set extremely high planting, weeding and harvesting goals and apply lashes to each and every slave who failed to meet these goals.  In response, slaves had only one alternative – work faster and harder.  Only the most productive escaped torture.

The vast economic expansion of the American cotton industry was driven by the torture of millions of black men, women and children, all of whom were required to work in slave camps across the South. These were not the plantations of American nostalgia, where slaves co-existed with their enslavers, mutually benefitting from their labors.  These were brutal work camps designed and perfected by Americans long before the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp or the Russian Gulag.  The average life span for a slave in these camps was about fifteen years before they were broken physically and mentally. Those who tried to escape this brutality were caught and tortured to death, often while their fellow slaves watched.

It is damning enough to realize the American economic miracle was built on the labor of slaves, that slaves produced the affluence that would make the United States the greatest economic power in human history.  Far more horrifying is the reality that this economic engine was fueled by the blood of tortured slaves.  Every major US bank invested in this system of torture.  Every significant political and economic leader in our history was aware and complicit.   Indeed, there are very few American institutions that aren’t in one way or another tainted by the blood of human torture.

If our history books were honest, they would tell the story of millions of tortured human beings.  They would shame us, forcing us to see our nation and its history as it is and not as we would have it be.  If Americans were lovers of truth, we would pass laws like those in Germany that make it a criminal offense to deny or diminish the realities of our Holocaust.  We would replace the monuments to Confederate monsters with memorials to tortured black men, women and children.  We would require every school child to fully understand the heinous acts of their ancestors.

Sadly, in classrooms from Texas to Massachusetts, this half of the American story continues to go untold.  Not because we do not know the truth about slavery, but because we don’t want to acknowledge our national guilt.  Until we confess and repent, whether we realize it or not, we are accepting, justifying and celebrating the horrific. The Egyptians who built the Pyramids with slave labor were slackers.  The Nazis with their concentration camps were novices. The Soviet Gulag was the work of amateurs.  When it comes to the application of systemic rape and torture, the United States is still unmatched.

Why I Disliked Black Panther

Why I Disliked Black Panther

Let me be perfectly clear.

Everyone should see the movie, Black Panther. It is an entertaining and ground breaking film with a nearly all black cast animating a comic book storyline full of social commentary on racism, colonialism and white privilege.  It wrestles with different visions of black empowerment.  It artfully uses nearly every scene to explore the challenges of being black in the world.  Even the Black Panther’s super powers are symbolic of the black struggle.  The more abuse the Black Panther takes, the more powerful he becomes.  As a white man, I was only aware of the most obvious narratives.  From what I am reading, black audiences are experiencing a deep catharsis while watching strong black men and women navigating the world.

I know my daughter did. I have never seen her more excited before, during or after a movie.  My wife found the movie – and watching our daughter watching the movie – emotionally moving.  They both left the theatre exclaiming, “That was awesome.”  I was less enthused.  When they asked what I thought, to their disappointment, I said, “It was good.”  Though I recognized the movie’s significance and power, I did not experience what they experienced. I didn’t connect with the movie emotionally.  Later, as I reflected on my response, I realized why.  This movie – unlike most – wasn’t about me.

It was not a movie about white men. We were barely present at all.  We were not the heroes.  We did not have super powers.  We did not save the world.  We did not get the girl.  Of the two white men in the movie, one was a crazy villain and the other a humbled and subordinate ally.  What I experienced in watching Black Panther was what people of color and women experience when they go to the movies.  Regardless of how compelling the movie may be, without the presence of strong characters that look like us, it is difficult to deeply connect.  We are watching someone else’s story.  This is what I disliked about Black Panther.

However, what I disliked even more was what that response indicated about me and our culture. As much as I’ve tried to become aware of my latent racism and sexism, this movie revealed how much further I have to go.  I am sympathetic to the plight of women and of people of color in our culture, but this movie suggested that I am not yet empathetic.  It is nearly impossible for me to fully appreciate or understand what it is like to be a person of color or a woman in a white male dominated society.  As with many aspects of our culture, I have been largely indifferent to how movies and media have excluded others and focused on me.

No wonder my wife and daughter have had no interest in the Star Wars movies that I’ve so enjoyed. If there was ever a black woman in any of the movies, I don’t remember her.  Until recently, all the heroes and villains of Star Wars were white men.  The central storyline was of the battle against the “dark side” of the Force.  Sadly, the Star Wars movies that I so eagerly anticipated have portrayed a future exactly like the present – one where people of color and women are marginalized and white men violently dominate.  More disturbing, these movies blatantly promote the “rightness” of such a world order.

Ironically, some of the critics of the Black Panther movie have attacked the movie for its undisguised social commentary and its lack of diversity. These critics seem hopelessly unaware of how nearly every other movie produced by Hollywood has an equally blatant worldview and a lack of diversity.  That these critics cannot see this intentionality in the movies they like, says far more about them than the Black Panther movie.  They, like me, aren’t used to the discomfort of being left out.

White male discomfort is a fairly rare experience. I seldom feel excluded and marginalized.  When I do, I am learning to welcome rather than resist that experience.  The only way for white men to learn empathy is if we allow ourselves to experience what so many others experience on a daily basis.  Movies about the exclusion of people of color – like Hidden Figures or Selma – do not accomplish this task.  Seeing how easily white men have dominated in the past may actually reinforce the normality of such a world order.  It takes a movie that offers a vastly different world order – one in which white men are evil, weak, ignorant and secondary – for white men to experience the discomfort we have so often created for others.

This is not the first time a Black Panther has made white men uncomfortable. Fifty years ago, hundreds of young black men organized as Black Panthers. They were condemned, harassed, arrested and killed.  Their movement was systemically destroyed because of its threat to white supremacy. Who would have guessed that fifty years later there would be a record breaking movie celebrating black power and reclaiming that title?  I find that hopeful.

Young black men are seeing themselves as super heroes and kings. Girls like my daughter are seeing themselves portrayed as never before.  White men, even though oblivious to the deeper storylines, may be affected.  Culture changes slowly and subtly.  Movies sometimes reveal tectonic shifts in the foundations of a culture, the shifting of assumptions and expectations.  What is being portrayed as fantasy is offered as possibility even though white men can’t see it.

One of the last scenes of the movie – one you only see if you sit through the initial credits – is that of a white man questioning how blacks from a poor African country can aid the world. It’s a laugh line, full of hope and irony.  The audience knows what that white man does not, that black men and women are capable of far more than he can imagine.  If given the opportunity, they can change the world.

I like that.

Anti-Family Values

Anti-Family Values

History has a way of repeating itself.

Two hundred years ago, white conservative Americans – while allegedly championing traditional family values – shamelessly devastated the families of people of color. Black fathers were systematically separated from their families, sold to plantation owners far away.  Black children were stripped from their mothers, auctioned off as commodities.  Whites justified this immoral behavior by defining black people as “property.”  Hiding behind legalities, we perpetrated depravities.  Though some whites saw the hypocrisy of this societal behavior, most whites – benefitting from the economic advantages of such a system – ignored the cruelties of slavery.

Sadly, this same hypocritical behavior is happening again. White conservative Americans – while allegedly championing traditional family values – are shamelessly devastating the families of people of color.  Immigrant fathers are being systematically separated from their families, deported after working in America for years.  Immigrant children are being stripped from their mothers, placed in foster care and even offered in adoption.  Whites are justifying this immoral behavior by defining many immigrants as “illegals.”  Hiding behind legalities, we are perpetrating depravities.  Again, though some whites see the hypocrisy of this societal behavior, most whites – benefitting from the economic advantages of such a system – are ignoring the cruelties of deportation.

Make no mistake. History will one day be as critical of what we are doing today as we are of what the proponents of slavery did in their day.  The arguments supporting mass deportation and family destruction will sound as false as those of the racist slave owners of the 1800s.  Remember, the cruelties of slavery were all done under the cloak of legality.  Agents of the government tracked down and arrested any slave who violated the system.  Those who gave sanctuary or protection to fleeing slaves could be prosecuted.  Judges were bound by the law to act immorally.  Government officials who found slavery abhorrent were pressured to support the national agenda. If this sounds strangely contemporary, it should.

More damning, history will once again question why many of the white people who recognized this immorality stood idly by, wringing their hands and posting memes, but largely allowing a great evil to go unchecked. There will incidents of white people who gave sanctuary to immigrant families, helping them avoid the authorities, but they will be rare.  There will be stories of individuals and movements who resisted, but they will have been ineffective.  Someday most Americans will be ashamed of this period of our history, wondering how it was possible that our nation elected a man who perpetrated such ugliness.

Make no mistake. The Republican Party is not the party of family values.  If their support of Donald Trump and Roy Moore is not evidence enough, their behavior toward the families of people of color should be conclusive.  Like the plantation owners of the 1800s, their commitment to family ends at their own door.  Indeed, they are perfectly willing to benefit from the labor of people of color with no concern for the families of those laborers.  They are happy to pit poor white families against poor families of color, but uninterested in addressing the common poverties and injustices that plague these families.  Indeed, in truth, the Republican Party is anti-family, unless that family is part of the American aristocracy.

Ironically, it is this very American aristocracy that has most encouraged “illegal” immigration. They were the ones who wanted people of color to work cheaply in their homes as nannies, cooks and gardeners. They were the ones who required cheap labor for their harvests and factories.  They have never really been against illegal immigration.  They are opposed to immigrants gaining citizenship, power and civil rights.  They support the deportation of immigrants precisely because they know they will be replaced by others with less power.  They want immigrants who do not dream of citizenship.  Separating them from their families is one way to discourage that dream.

Unfortunately, as in the days of slavery, ending policies of family destruction and the deportation of people of color is unlikely. Even under the Obama administration, our nation was committed to the economic exploitation of immigrant people.  We sustained an economic system that needed their labor while ignoring their humanity and civil rights.  While Obama’s administration was less strident in its attack on families and offered temporary support to the Dreamers, it was unwilling to dismantle the infrastructure that Trump is using today.  As in the days of slavery, we are all complicit.  As with the compromises around slavery, they tend to preserve the status quo.

Democrats are right to resist the demand from Republicans that any relief for the Dreamers must include an end to “chain” immigration. Don’t be confused.  The term “chain” immigration is another hypocrisy.  What conservatives call “chain” immigration is simply family reunification.  This is what the party of family values is opposing.  They are willing to allow people with certain skills to immigrate to America.  They are willing to benefit from those people’s labor.  They are even willing to allow them to become citizens and pay taxes in certain circumstances.  They are unwilling to allow them to live with their own families.

Of course, this is not how white conservative Americans will frame this discussion. They will claim progressives want to throw open our borders and allow anyone to come to the United States.  This is not true.  What progressives demand is justice and compassion for those we have economically exploited.  This was a valid demand in 1860 and it is equally compelling today.  These people of color deserve our appreciation and consideration rather than our condemnation.  Destroying the families of these people is merely evidence of the depths of our depravity.

Don’t be confused. This is not an issue of legality.  Slavery was legal.  Dividing families is legal.  This is a question of morality.  If you believe it is moral to arrest a man who has worked in our country for over 30 years, separate him from his wife and children and exile him to a land thousands of miles from them, you and I have nothing further to discuss.  You are not just the enemy of people of color.  You are my enemy.