Category Archives: Racial Equality

Charleston

I haven’t written about the massacre in Charleston. I haven’t processed it, either, but just ignoring it seems somehow shameful.

Regular readers of this blog know that there are numerous elements of the world we occupy that concern and (too frequently) enrage me. Willful ignorance leading to bad public policies, rampant anti-intellectualism, the loss of a responsible media…it’s a long list.

America’s inability to overcome our deeply entrenched racism, however, is at the top of that list.

I’m seventy-three years old. I’ve seen overt racism decline substantially over my lifetime. We passed civil rights laws. Nice people stopped telling racist jokes at cocktail parties. Intermarriages increased and disapproval of those unions decreased. We prepared to elect a biracial President. It seemed that the arc of history was–in Martin Luther King’s words–bending toward justice.

Then Barack Obama was elected, and overt racism came roaring back.

All the old white guys (and let’s be honest, plenty of old white gals) who’d been trying to cope with the fact that their lives hadn’t turned out the way they’d hoped, who’d been getting up each morning to a world in which they were no longer automatically superior simply by virtue of their skin color, suddenly had a black President. And they just couldn’t handle it.

The rocks lifted. The nastiness, the resentment, the smallness oozed out.

The internet “jokes,” the Fox News dog-whistles, the political pandering that barely tries to camouflage its racial animus–they’ve all contributed to a new-old social norm in which racism is winked at, and if noticed at all, justified with urban legends about African-Americans and outright lies about the President.

Every inadequate excuse for a human being who has forwarded a vile email about the President and his family, every gun nut claiming that people wouldn’t have been killed if only the pastor had been armed (in church!), every snide “commentator” who has spent the last six years making a nice living by playing to racist stereotypes–every one of them created the culture within which this terrorist acted. Every one of them is a co-conspirator in this mass murder.

And don’t get me started on a culture that lets any man insecure in his masculinity–no matter how mentally ill, no matter how demonstrably violent– substitute a deadly weapon for that missing piece of his anatomy.

 

Unfortunately, It Isn’t Only Texas

Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert recently responded to criticism of Republican proposals that would savagely cut food stamps by explaining that “some poor people are obese, and this will help them.”

Okay–I guess I can understand really dumb people who also lack compassion or the intelligence to refrain from embarrassing themselves. I don’t understand the voters who elect them.

Pathetic, for sure. But for pure evil, Louie (once called “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse”) has been eclipsed by the current Texas Attorney General, who has initiated a lawsuit against the federal government over the definition of the word ‘spouse’ as it’s defined post-Windsor by the Department of Labor. The suit alleges that allowing the federal government to define same-sex partners as spouses threatens “imminent” harm to the Great State of Texas.

Specifically, the DOL change relates to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA legally protects employees’ jobs when they must take time off work to care for a spouse or immediate family member.
According to Paxton, LGBT couples should not have the legal right to take time off work to care for a seriously ill or injured spouse.
“This lawsuit is about defending the sovereignty of our state, and we will continue to protect Texas from the unlawful overreach of the federal government,” Paxton argued in a statement to press. “The newly revised definition of ‘spouse’ under the FMLA is in direct violation of state and federal laws and U.S. Constitution,”
As the courts will undoubtedly explain to Mr. Paxton–who somehow managed to graduate from law school with absolutely no understanding of the way American federalism works–there’s this pesky thing called the Supremacy Clause that limits Texas’ “sovereignty.” But whether he is ignorant of the law–or just pandering to Texans who are ignorant of the law–the astonishing part of this story is the determined viciousness with which he attacks LGBT citizens.
This lawsuit follows another similar suit (also filed by Paxton’s office) to overturn a decision that recognized one lesbian couple’s marriage. The Texas couple were granted marriage rights by the courts due in large part to one of the two suffering from severe ovarian cancer.

This degree of hate is hard to understand. But scholars have tried.

In the wake of President Truman’s 1948 order integrating the armed forces, pioneering social psychologist Gordon Allport wrote a book titled The Nature of Prejudice. Allport distinguished between two kinds of bigotry– negative social attitudes that can be changed by education and increased contact with members of the disfavored group, and the desperate, twisted hatred that Paxton’s actions exhibit, and that erupted after Obama’s election.

People in the latter group have a deep-seated psychological need to hate, and their stereotypes about the objects of that hatred are impervious to evidence. They are deeply damaged beings.

I might be able to muster up some measure of sympathy for these disordered folks, if we’d stop electing them.

 

 

 

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.