What Do We Do?

Yesterday morning, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians. Later in the afternoon, Mike Pence ostentatiously walked out of the Colts game when players “took a knee” to protest racism and inequality. In light of his despicable posturing,  my morning remarks seem particularly relevant, so I’m sharing them.


When I was a very new lawyer, an older lawyer in the firm where I worked said something I’ve never forgotten: There’s only one legal question, and that question is “what do we do?”

That axiom also describes our social and political world. “What should we do?” in the face of mounting evidence that the racism and anti-Semitism we thought had diminished had merely gone underground?

What should we do about a President whose rhetoric and policies are calculated to feed the bigotries and resentments of those who elected him and further divide an already polarized country?

What do we do in the face of mounting evidence—and not just from Charlottesville–that the outcome of the last election has encouraged and empowered the worst elements of the American Alt-Right—the Klan, the Nazis, the White Supremacists and others who had spent the preceding eight years seething over the fact that America had a black President?

In the immediate aftermath of last November’s unexpected election result, pundits and social scientists told us that most Trump voters were “economically distressed,” that they were members of the American Heartland who felt ignored and disparaged by the so-called “coastal elites.” As data emerged and was analyzed, however, it turned out that the average Trump voter was better off, economically, than the average Clinton voter. And although the data showed that rural voters were considerably more likely to support Trump than urban residents, that data also unambiguously showed that it was the voters who displayed what we academic types call “racial resentment” who were most likely to support Trump.

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago does continual polling on a wide variety of questions in its General Social Survey. Their data shows that American society as a whole still buys into racist stereotypes, but that Republicans are statistically far more likely to hold racist views.

Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that all Republicans are racists. It doesn’t even mean that all Trump voters were racists—although a significant percentage of them evidently were.

The General Social Survey is one of the oldest and largest recurring surveys of American behaviors and attitudes. It collects far more data than most researchers can afford to do, and as a result, it is able to “drill down” further than most similar efforts. The 2016 results reflected a number of very troubling fractures in American society. As one columnist summarized those results,

“The partisan gaps among whites were as wide or wider than we’ve seen since the survey first started asking most of these questions in the 1990s. It’s not that white Republicans’ views of African Americans have dimmed so much as that they haven’t kept pace with those of white Democrats. But in some cases, the GOP has moved in the other direction.

The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The General Social Survey asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”

A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with that statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats…

The survey also asked people to rate the races on how hard-working or lazy they are, which allows us to compare whether people rate some races higher than others.

In this case, 42 percent of white Republicans rated African Americans as being lazier than whites, versus 24 percent of white Democrats.”

In light of this data, are we really supposed to believe that all those voters who said they liked Trump because he “tells it like it is” and “isn’t ‘politically correct’” were reacting to his position on trade?

Racism and stereotyping may be more pronounced among Republicans, but as the General Social Survey results showed, Democrats are hardly immune. Refusing to admit how persistent and consequential racism is, refusing to recognize how many of our political and social attitudes are rooted in disdain for those who don’t look like us, those we label “Other,” distorts our public discourse and perpetuates bias and misunderstanding.

If we are going to solve these problems, if we are going to come out of this very precarious time still looking like the America most of us grew up believing in, we simply cannot afford the polarization and tribalism that has re-emerged with such force. It isn’t just race. It isn’t just anti-Semitism. It’s anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-“elitist,” anti-science, anti-intellectual…It’s Anti-Other. It’s “us” versus whomever we classify as “them.”

If we are to productively attack these issues, we need to enlarge our public understanding of who we are talking about when we talk about “us.” We need to enlarge our definition of who “we” are.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

America is a country that was founded on Enlightenment principles, and foremost among those principles was a respect for personal autonomy—the right of every individual to self-determination, our right to “do our own thing.” The heart of our legal system was the libertarian principle: your right to live as you like and do what you want, until and unless you harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you respect the equal right of others to do their own thing. Partly as a result of that founding philosophy—which was very different from the European countries our settlers came from—America is known for its emphasis on individualism. We take personal responsibility, we stand on our own two feet, we’re “can-do” entrepreneurs—and that’s all good. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Community is equally important.

When people are categorized as “other,” when they are not really members of our community, not one of “us,” it becomes easy–and acceptable–to generalize about them and to demonize them. It wasn’t so long ago that we heard that the Irish are all drunks, Catholics all do the Pope’s bidding, Jews are shifty businesspeople…We still hear that blacks are lazy and women are overly emotional. Membership definitely has its privileges, and the most significant of those is acceptance into the polity and the right to be judged on our own merits, as individuals, and not as members of this or that “tribe.”

Of course, membership also implies exclusion of those who don’t belong. Too much exclusivity leaves us without a membership sufficient for national cohesion and purpose. Society becomes atomized, a collection of self-serving tribes and individuals. It’s also true that excessive emphasis on nationalistic “we’s” can lead to fascism or authoritarianism. The trick is to find the proper balance–enough community to give us a sense of belonging and to generate mutual support, enough individualism to facilitate the exploration of our human distinctiveness. The Greeks called it “The Golden Mean.”

As we’ve seen, President Trump sneers at “political correctness.” This plays well with the so-called “alt-right” that is the heart of his base—the white supremacists, anti-Semites and the like who dismiss civility and mutual respect as political correctness, and who defend their nastiness and overt bigotry as “free speech”[–or in Mike Pence’s case, “religious liberty.”]  The Mayor of Charlottesville had a letter in the New York Times not long after the events in that city that not only rebutted that characterization, but also answered the question I began with; the question “what do we do?” He provided a list of things that people of good will can and must do to fight back against those who want to divide this country into we and they, us and “other.”

Mayor Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville are always accompanied by calls for restricting the right to protest, and he warned against going down that path. But if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer didn’t simply recite platitudes; he spelled out who should do what: companies must use their economic clout to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”

Individually, we must all make a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or African-Americans or LGBT youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. Law firms should dedicate pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed. Mentors and teachers must teach young folks that that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. Politicians should agree to sit down together and negotiate to do the people’s business, rather than posture for and pander to their bases. As the mayor concluded,

“And it means government finally telling the truth about race in American history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.”

To which I would add: each of us needs to become a civic activist. We need to relentlessly pressure our elected officials; we need to march and protest when those actions are appropriate. We need to join so-called “Resistance” groups, and support organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Lambda Legal, among many others. We need to reach out to neighbors who don’t look like us, and initiate respectful conversations.

And we desperately need to return an in-depth, rigorous Civics education to our public school classrooms. What makes us Americans—what entitles us to membership—is allegiance to a particular approach to self-government. When we don’t know what that approach is, when we are unfamiliar with its history and philosophy and evolution, we increase polarization and lose what it is that makes us a genuinely American community.

I read the Charlottesville Mayor’s letter as a call to active and informed citizenship, and at this perilous moment in American national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that can save us.

Thank you.


  1. The real question needs to be “What do we do with our racism?”

    We were all raised with racism surrounding us in our society. We all harbor some kind of racism, to some degree, and thankfully many fight off its expression in their daily lives. Some do not. But most are in denial about it, and IMO, it is that majority who are the problem.

    Sadly, educating the electorate in civics and getting out the vote is not going to do anything to rid us of this our century old problem. So, I ask the question again, “What do we do with our racism?”

  2. Thank you, Sheila.

    “What do we do?” Kneeling has been an accepted form of prayer for centuries. How many Americans are “taking a knee” in one form or another, per their religious or spiritual beliefs, against the current administration? How many others are “taking a knee” to stop pro sports figures from doing the same as they ask for civil and human rights for all? Politics is now a team sport; as is religion. If we are not on the same political or religious “team” as Trump, Pence, Sessions, Bannon and the majority of the current Congress, we are not in their league. Yet; we outnumber them as was proven by the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. This fact should bring about the end of the Electoral College which has given us the last two Republican presidents.

    What do we do? The Mayor of Charlottesville offered up his recommendations after the horrors of that “demonstration” ending in the death of one innocent woman, yet his own police force removed the “peacemakers” that day rather than the trouble makers from the area. The Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is still speaking out in a loud voice against Trump’s refusal to accept Puerto Ricans as American citizens and recognizing the logistical problems still preventing FEMA help from getting to victims. (Where can I get some of those soft, very, very nice paper towels”)

    Prior to his inauguration; Trump contacted a small Black church in Flint, Michigan, asking to speak before the congregation to congratulate them on their work to aid those poisoned by the water provided knowingly by the Flint utility. Trump, naturally, very quickly went from a few words of congratulations to his much practiced campaign mode. Just as quickly; the woman Preacher mounted the stage and STOPPED HIM, reminding him he was not there to give a campaign speech. We can learn from her “what to do”.

    The Republicans who still know right from wrong – NOT right from left – need to stand up to Trump as she did and the San Juan Mayor continues to do. Do they believe they will maintain their elected positions by working against their constituent’s civil and human rights, against the Constitution they swore to uphold and against democracy? Do they not recognize that the foot of the oppressor is on their necks as well as our’s? They will go down with us; but at what cost to this nation and the world due to their current support of racism and bigotry by a mentally incompetent fool with a lot of money…which he continues to get illegally as our president while emptying our tax base.

    “And we desperately need to return an in-depth, rigorous Civics education to our public school classrooms.”

    The above statement from Sheila is the crux of the problem today. But Civics education will not be found in “God’s Kingdom” in the future and we need help now. Do we need to organize a complete turnaround in our education system; turn private schools away from the Bible as the foundation of education?

    But until that can happen, we are stuck with “what do we do?”

    “And it means government finally telling the truth about race in American history.” On the surface this statement by the Charlottesville Mayor appears profound but…those in the White House today can and will bring out the truth that many of the founding fathers were slave owners, the ugliest form of racism. Have we come full circle?

  3. Keeping track of “The Other” takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. I gave up trying to do it, oh, about 60 years ago.
    And, I’ve never regretted doing it, because I quickly learned there are “Other” things to do with that time and effort :: like read a book about that ‘other’. So I did, and you know what? I learned ‘that other’ is not really different than I am.

  4. Like many, I am over-whelmed by the daily news. We have long realized Trump feels compelled to respond to each & every “slight” to his person as Twitler. But that mental illness, scary as it is–isn’t what makes me so frustrated. It is white family & friends who don’t give a damn about blacks, how many people will die from gunshots, dreamers, immigrants & anyone marginalized. But, by God they will worship our flag mixing patriotism & Christianity with blatant nationalism. Many of them not even knowing the definition of nationalism. I have profound disappointment in fellow Americans which I am sure they have in “leftist” me, as well. What do you do with that?

  5. Theresa,

    “What do we do with our racism?”

    Possibly, one effective way would be to communicate what the probable result will be if we do not make some REAL EFFORT to move toward an EQUILIBRIUM on the racial issue. For example, a docu-drama, in movie form, showing the UNAVOIDABLE CONSEQUENCES from a regime like the THREE LOSERS…using the end result of Germany’s rabid racism, in the form of anti-Semitism, as a VIVID REMINDER.

    For example, George Clooney was involved in an effective docu-drama involving the assassination of JFK as well as a live re-enactment of “Fail Safe” on TV. The “Fail Safe” message was all about a countervailing force and its use for maintaining equilibrium. From what I’ve read, all visitors to Clooney’s home had to sit and view a re-run of the TV version of “Fail Safe.”

    If not Clooney, there are other famous actors, actresses, directors, producers, and writers with a similar political persuasion.

    We must use all the advances in technology to our best advantage.

    As I’ve mentioned before, we all want a good night’s sleep.

  6. An effective example of the negative use of racism on film from Wikipedia. Why not a positive one involving race that might prevent another national catastrophe like the one the German people had to eventually face:

    The Birth of a Nation (originally called The Clansman) is a 1915 American silent epic drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. The screenplay is adapted from the novel and play The Clansman, both by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith co-wrote the screenplay (with Frank E. Woods), and co-produced the film (with Harry Aitken). It was released on February 8, 1915.

    Three hours long, the film was originally presented in two parts separated by an intermission; it was the first 12-reel film in the United States. The film chronicles the relationship of two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era over the course of several years: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is dramatized.

    The film was a commercial success, though it was highly controversial for its portrayal of black men (many played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) (whose original founding is dramatized) as a heroic force. There were widespread African-American protests against The Birth of a Nation, such as in Boston, while thousands of white Bostonians flocked to see the film. The NAACP spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign to ban the film. Griffith’s indignation at efforts to censor or ban the film motivated him to produce Intolerance the following year.

    The film’s release is also credited as being one of the events that inspired the formation of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year. The Birth of a Nation, along with the trial and lynching of Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta, was used as a recruiting tool for the KKK. Under President Woodrow Wilson, it was the first American motion picture to be screened at the White House.

    Griffith’s innovative techniques and storytelling power have made The Birth of a Nation one of the landmarks of film history. In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

  7. Marv,

    You are right about the effect of these films. There are other films too that have altered the public’s perception of our world, notably The Day After and Testament, both of which helped turn the public against the cold war and the arms race.

    But I wonder what we as individuals can do, should be doing, to rid our society of racism. I would suggest that we recognize what we ourselves carry in our hearts, and while acknowledging that, we all speak up more when we encounter it. One need not get into a shouting match or argument. One only needs to admit the truth about oneself to point out the racism we see in front of us. IMO such a move on the part of well meaning people would be very effective in dampening the racism that today is so blatant. Of course, it would take courage.

  8. What do we do?

    I have joined the Women4Change Indiana group and will be attending the Ready to Run Indiana training conference the last weekend of October.

    I am attending a local town hall regarding Medicare cuts tomorrow evening to ask questions of Rep Jackie Walorski’s staff why she is voting to cut this program. Unfortunately, Jackie is one of those alt-right congressional members who refuses to hold meetings for the public. After much pressure she is sending members of her staff beacuse she will not subject herself to having to answer questions from her constituents that might put her in a position where she really doesn’t have a good answer because she knows that she doesn’t represent her constituents, but actually represents ALEC and any other large corporate donor orgs that will give her money to be one of their prostitutes.

  9. Theresa,

    “But I wonder what we as individuals can do, should be doing, to rid our society of racism.”

    I agree with you. That’s where the answer lies. But like you said, “It would take COURAGE.”

    From my recollection, it seems people have much more COURAGE when they find out their house is on fire.

    Also, having been a trial attorney for so many years, you learn jurors don’t move on their own accord. They have to be PRODDED, especially when it involves race.

    prod (prad) vt. prod’ded, prod’ding [< ?] 1. to jab as with a pointed stick 2. to goad into action—n. 1. a jab or thrust 2. something that prods
    ~Webster's New World Dictionary

  10. I’m old. Racism was rabid when I was young. Some people have adopted the Jesus philosophy of love one another. “Separate but Equal” exacerbated racism but de-segregation has largely defanged it and our innocent young resist it. I think the “browning of America” by a natural process once illegal, a process that will eventually be replaced by some other human horror. A start could be to popularize the “buzz cut” for men and boys. Just imagine what its widespread use will do to deflate the POTUS vain style psyche.

  11. OMG,

    “A start could be to popularize the “buzz cut” for men and boys. Just imagine what its widespread use will do to deflate the POTUS vain style psyche.”

    I’m old too. Just not as old as you. Wouldn’t that, as you have stated, “be replaced by some other horror?” The skinhead special.

  12. One fact was once again confirmed that Pence with his staged walk-out at the Colts game is a complete bobble-head. Pence said: “I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.”

    The Trumpet has wrapped himself up in the flag. The Trumpet when he had the chance to volunteer, or get drafted and go to Vietnam took multiple knees with his various deferments.

  13. “The Republicans who still know right from wrong – NOT right from left”. Beautiful JoAnn.

    Some blacks are hard assed criminals. Some are welfare addicts, and some are dope addicts. Some are too lazy to work but not too proud to live off the work of others. Some dress and talk funny and look mean and intimidating. Some rap music by and for blacks is demeaning to everyone. O J Simpson murdered his wife and her lover and Bill Cosby couldn’t keep his pants zipped and took advantage of women. Some black football players take a knee rather than salute their betters. Some blacks live in ghettos. Some black fathers love the sex but hate the outcome.

    One was arguably our best President ever and a world class example of everything admirable including husband and father -hood but certainly you can’t expect one to make up for all of the others.

    All that having been said we could continue into the faults displayed by every other race, color, creed and ethnicity and if we’re feeling angry, depressed and/or afraid we often do.

    Boo hoo. So sad. Too bad.

    Some Americans stand on their own accomplishments with no need to put others down to make themselves seem taller. They earn their way and their position in life. They accept the advantages that came from others, they find their strengths and work to build up any disadvantages.

  14. Great article, wish I had the answer. All I can say is this; I was not raised in Indiana to defend the views held by Trump and his associates. I did not raise my three sons to defend these values as well. I was a republican for 50 years; I did not leave the party, they left me after 9-11!

  15. I took a knee during the playing of the national anthem on Saturday at the start of the Tour de Cure to raise funds for the American Diabetes Association, not just because of the abuse of minorities but because of the abuse of the environment. What bothers me is that the people in front of me kept talking as if the national anthem was not even being played.

  16. The old are lost. Education of the young is the only answer, and that has achieved steady, incremental progress until now.

    We MUST gain control of the state politically to gain control of the education establishment and reverse the damage done to it by republicans, and we must devote ourselves more than ever to the humanities and civics education.

    If we do not, then you should prepare you grandchildren to enjoy the simple pleasures of serfdom.

  17. I took an early childhood development class at St. Mary’s College (across the street from the University of Notre Dame) and learned that we have an innate prejudice. Studies of white infants shown photos of people of color showed them looking away as if afraid and some even cried. The study of black infants produced the same results of against white people. It’s whatever you are introduced with as an infant but can be overcome with parents teaching that all are equal. That knowledge helped me understand racism and how we need to overcome it.

  18. If something doesn’t change within the next election cycle or two, I fear our country, as envisioned by the founders, is gone. Everything seems to have been rigged for one group or another; there’s no level playing field, there’s no free market, there’s no democracy. And in the face of all this our attention is diverted to whether professional athletes stand during the playing of our national anthem. Our three branches of government have already taken a knee and have shown how little they respect their electorate, how little they value the institutions which they are sworn to serve and how safe they are in the insulated shell in which they operate.

    Hell, the country is probably already gone. Cue the Stars and Stripes and a Trump speech.

  19. The problems destined to destroy our social cohesion unless sidetracked are well known – only our approaches to their solution vary from the experiences each of us bring to the table as good citizens interested in the common good, and lately with Trump, survival. Thus not all whites are racists, and all racists are not white. Outcomes vary with individual experiences, experiences partly drummed into us by our parents and especially social environments from an early age. If we could ever get our approaches in unison, approaches that include both moral and secular dimensions and in keeping with our Enlightenment principles, our problems would go away and our social cohesion would flourish – so query? Are we shooting at the wrong targets and, if so, what do we do to bring a winning approach to solution? How do we tell someone to quit discriminating on gender, color, and quit being selfish? All I know to do is to hammer away at the truth in educating our people to understand a higher calling for the good of all. If there are better approaches, I am listening. Whatever works in favor of cohesion rather than the divisiveness Trump & Co. are peddling.

  20. Gerald,

    “All I know to do is to hammer away at the truth in educating our people to understand a higher calling for the good of all. ”

    I’m with you, that is the best approach. But that’s not what happened. We used Congress and the courts to enforce the cohesion thru civil rights legislation and the court system. I was a strong supporter of this route. However, in hindsight, we needed much more to prevent a backlash. And that’s what we are faced with now—-an attempt to destroy our democracy. And it might just work.

  21. Excellent piece, as usual. Trump is one of our most egregious aberrations. The polarization added to the peculiarities of the electoral college plus the political activism amongst those most lusting power have created this perfect storm. We are in big trouble unless we get the 47% off their asses and into the voting booth.

Comments are closed.