Category Archives: Racial Equality

But I’m Not a Racist…

Chris Harris, a member of the board of the Hooks Independent School District in Texas, is in hot water for a “seasonal” message he posted on social media: the text reads “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” across a photo of–wait for it– a KKK member in full regalia.

When criticism erupted, he responded by saying that he realizes what he posted “was inappropriate and offended people.” He went on to say he’s deeply sorry and to insist that he’s “not a racist.”

What do people like Harris think it takes to be a racist? A burning cross? Maybe a lynching or two?

Let me offer a couple of clues to the clueless.

If you refer to the members of any group–blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays–as “them” or “those people”–thus inferring that members of that group share certain (generally negative) behavioral characteristics–you’re racist.

If you think demeaning jokes–comparisons of black folks with monkeys, for example– are funny, and “no big deal,” yeah, you’re a racist. Big time. (If you listen to race-based jokes and don’t protest to the “comedian”, you are at least a fellow-traveler; if you forward tasteless emails you’ve received, you are definitely a racist.)

If you thought Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan for Massachusetts was an innovative, business-friendly approach to health care, but the Affordable Care Act–aka “Obamacare”– is UnAmerican socialism, you’re a racist. (And a twit.)

If you are surprised and offended by people protesting the Grand Jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Garner and Brown–if you just can’t understand why people might react with anger over those decisions–you are either racist or intentionally clueless (same difference).

If you are a public official who thinks posting a picture of a Klansman is just another way of saying “Happy Holidays” you aren’t only racist, you’re too f**king dumb to hold public office. Or, probably, to get out of bed most mornings.

 

 

Let It (All Hang) Out

Our sorry excuse for a newspaper has a feature–common to many papers–called “Let It Out,” where readers can comment on the news of the day. I generally scan it, despite the relative absence of anything that might be considered insightful, since it is one of the few features (especially at this time of year) that isn’t an ad.

Yesterday, there was a particularly smug, utterly clueless sentiment about the mess in Ferguson: if African-American parents are concerned about what to tell their children about interactions with the police, the reader wrote, they should just tell their sons to obey the law, and then they won’t have any problems.

Really?

I guess all those statistics about disparate law enforcement are irrelevant. (Driving while black, anyone?) I guess the disclosures by Anonymous (the internet hackers who took over the Klan’s twitter account a couple of weeks ago, and found KKK members among police in several cities) are just evidence that cops are jolly joiners. And all those personal stories in the newspapers and on our Facebook feeds? Just anecdotal; ignore them.

Let’s get real, as the kids might say, and concede that none of us–on the left or right–knows what happened before Michael Brown was shot six times. The exoneration of the police officer in this particular case–irregular as the Grand Jury proceedings evidently were–may have been totally justified. And nothing excuses rioting and the destruction of the property of innocent shopkeepers.

Nothing excuses wholesale condemnation of the police, either. I teach a required course in a school with a well-regarded criminal justice program, so I teach a lot of police officers. Most of them are genuine public servants, trying to do a difficult but necessary job that sometimes requires them to make split-second decisions.

All that said, it takes a special kind of intentional blindness to ignore the fact that there are some very bad apples drawn to a line of work that confers power over others. (When I was in City Hall, we tried to weed those people out with psychological exams, with spotty success.) It takes a perverse and selective understanding of the American landscape to ignore the extent to which racism still characterizes the experience of the black community, and to ignore the reasons why some members of that community might periodically explode with anger.

And it takes an offensive and deliberate moral arrogance to lecture mothers who are desperate to protect their children from encounters that every sentient American knows are far from rare.

When you “Let it Out,” what comes out can sometimes be pretty horrifying.

 

 

Can We Ever Lance This Boil?

One of the people whose writing I very much admire is Phil Gulley. I first encountered his essays in The Indianapolis Monthly, but I subsequently learned that he contributes to a number of other venues, and recently I came across a really profound piece he wrote for Salon.

These paragraphs, particularly, struck me:

The merit of a position can be gauged by the temperament of its supporters, and these days the NRA reminds me of the folks who packed the courtroom of the Scopes monkey trial, fighting to preserve a worldview no thoughtful person espoused. This worship of guns grows more ridiculous, more difficult to sustain, and they know it, hence their theatrics, their parading through Home Depot and Target, rifles slung over shoulders. Defending themselves, they say. From what, from whom? I have whiled away many an hour at Home Depots and Targets and never once come under attack.

What drives this fanaticism? Can I venture a guess? Have you noticed the simultaneous increase in gun sales and the decline of the white majority? After the 2010 census, when social scientists predicted a white minority in America by the year 2043, we began to hear talk of “taking back our country.” Gun shops popped up like mushrooms, mostly in the white enclaves of America’s suburbs and small towns. One can’t help wondering if the zeal for weaponry has been fueled by the same dismal racism that has propelled so many social ills.

Although I agree with Gulley about guns, I think I responded so strongly to these  paragraphs because I have become increasingly despondent about the unbelievable (at least to me) resurgence in overt racism since the election of Barack Obama.

Let me get a couple of caveats out of the way first: yes, it is perfectly possible to disagree with President Obama without being a racist. Not every such disagreement, or strong criticism, is fueled by racist animus. And although the election of a black President is not, unfortunately, a sign that we are a post-racial society, it is a sign that America has made progress.

That said, after Obama’s election, and before he even took office, the rocks lifted and what crawled out should shame us all.

It began with internet “jokes” about watermelons and “uppity” African-Americans, with Fox News “commentators” charging that Obama was the “real racist” and vast amounts of similar garbage that fed the accusations of the “birthers” (a black man by definition couldn’t be a “real American”). Long-time bigots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had a field day, as we might have expected, but the pushback we also should have expected wasn’t exactly resounding.

It has become acceptable again to share racist sentiments in “polite company”–to tell “jokes” or make aspersions that had previously (and thankfully) gone underground.

And so here we are.

A California man claims he was defending himself last year when he ran over a black man, killing him, following an altercation outside McDonalds.

Joseph Paul Leonard Jr. burned rubber for 23 feet before crashing into 34-year-old Toussaint Harrison during the June 6, 2013 incident, reported the Sacramento Bee.

Leonard, now 62, got out of his pickup and kicked Harrison several times in the head with his steel-toed work boots, authorities said.

“Just because we got Obama for a president, these people think they are real special,” Leonard said after his arrest.

These people.

When the President nominated Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder, twitter feeds exploded with racist comments. White supremacists recently rallied outside Dallas, “to protect the American way of life.” George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missiouri.  A noose around the neck of a statue of a famous civil rights figure at the University of Mississippi. The list could go on for pages–indeed, examples routinely dot my Facebook feed, as friends post everything from insensitive behaviors to horrifying incidents–most accompanied by sentiments like “words fail.”

Words do fail.

I understand that people resent losing privilege and hegemony. I recognize that social change can be profoundly disorienting, and that the gun-toting, race-baiting bullies are frightened and lost. But ultimately, the bullies aren’t the problem. The “nice” people who forward the emails, who chuckle approvingly at the “jokes,” who claim to hate the President because he’s an unAmerican Nazi-socialist and not because he’s black, the elected officials who have made it their sole mission is to keep this President from achieving anything, no matter how good for the country, no matter that their party thought of it first–those people are the problem.

And Houston, we really, really have a problem.

 

 

 

Ferguson

I haven’t blogged about the depressing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, for a number of reasons: first of all, unlike left- and rightwing partisans, all of whom are convinced they know exactly what happened, I’m not in possession of all the facts.

So what do I know?

I know that everyone in a position of authority, including the police chief, the Mayor and the Governor, has demonstrated what world-class bungling looks like. It’s hard to imagine more ham-handed and counterproductive efforts to deal with an already difficult situation.

I know that Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, and that virtually all of the power structure–elected officials, police officers–are white. I also know that–at least according to press reports–turnout in the last municipal election was twelve percent. Maybe there is a reason the residents of Ferguson are not exercising their franchise, but on the surface, it is puzzling that members of the African-American community haven’t used the ballot to address their grievances.

But most of all, because I have a lot of black friends and because I used to be the Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I know that–Sesame Street et al to the contrary– the policeman isn’t always your friend.  Most police officers are good guys, but there are far too many who use the badge and the gun to compensate for whatever demons they fight, to reassure themselves that they are superior to the people they are supposed to be protecting, and as a license to frighten and dominate people they don’t like. (A police officer who was a recent contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” described her job as “Trash Management,” because she “takes out the human trash.” That’s an attitude we can do without.)

One of the blogs I follow is “Juanita Jean: The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor.” This recent post from”Juanita” helps explain the concerns and the anger, not just of African-Americans and Latinos, but of all fair-minded citizens.

True story: the first time a met a Texas Ranger, the legendary Texas lawmen not the baseball team, I was wearing a gorgeous hand loomed sarape from interior Mexico. It was one of my prize possessions because of its beauty and utility in Houston winters. The Ranger, meeting me for the first time, said to me, “Don’t you know not to wear a poncho around a Texas Ranger?” I asked why. “Because that’s what we take target practice on. Har. Har. Har.” My stomach turned. It was a life-altering moment.

That’s not funny. Not at all. And the reason it’s not funny is that there is too much truth in it. Twenty-five years later, I met the first black female Texas Ranger. I asked her if I could hug her. I didn’t tell her why but I think she saw it in my eyes. She hugged me.

I am in pain over Ferguson. We’ve fought this crap for my entire life and we still haven’t won.

I still have some fight left in me. I do.

We all need to fight–for justice, and also for forbearance. We all have preconceived notions that dictate knee-jerk responses to tragedies like Ferguson. Those preconceptions only drive us further apart, when what we really need is a narrative and definition of justice that will allow us to come together.

And really, military gear doesn’t help.

 

File Under “It’s Who You Know”…

Oligarchies work really well if you are one of the oligarchs. The Indianapolis Star recently re-engaged in something that used to be called “journalism,” and reported that the State of Indiana had intentionally misused federal funds during the Daniels Administration.

Federal auditors say Indiana intentionally misused federal funds when one of its contractors, operating with little state oversight, funneled nearly a half million dollars to a start-up business run by the nonprofit’s chairman.

Elevate Ventures, which was the subject of an Indianapolis Star investigation last year, was hired by the state to manage millions of dollars in state and federal investment funds. The federal audit concluded that the nonprofit should not have awarded $499,986 in federal cash to a start-up business called Smarter Remarketer managed by the firm’s chairman, Howard Bates.

The article was thorough, and drew a pretty damaging picture of the games being played with our tax dollars. State officials, of course, denied any intentional wrongdoing and attributed the “problem” to inadequate oversight.

Spoiler alert: I will now go into “broken record” mode. For the past quarter-century, citizens have been told that government can’t do anything by itself, and that privatizing–”contracting out”–is the way to deliver government services. Sometimes contracting makes good sense. Often, it doesn’t. See here and here.

 

When contracting is appropriate, government remains responsible for oversight and management. Even if the scam detailed by the Star wasn’t a case of cronyism (and if you believe that, I have a great bridge to sell you…), it points to one of the dangers of  contracting: government officials who lack either the will or the expertise to manage those contracts adequately.

 

Of course, the article suggests that the folks responsible for overseeing Elevate Ventures weren’t inept. They were cozy.

 

 

Ah, oligarchy….