The Question We All Must Answer

In a recent column for the New York Times, Charles Blow gave voice to a question with which I continue to struggle–a question that (I assume, albeit without evidence) bedevils most thoughtful people: what can I do? What difference can one person make?

Blow recounted his family’s history of poverty, and told of a trip back to visit a favorite–very poor–aunt. By the time of the visit, he had moved into a more favorable economic position, but was certainly not able to ameliorate the conditions of the impoverished folks in his family, let alone others similarly situated.

I sat there thinking about the great divide among us, about how far removed I now was from this life, but also about how very connected I was, spiritually, to it.

And I was conflicted. How much could I or should I help? I have had long talks with my mother about this. Other than a little money in greeting cards, there wasn’t much that I could do for all the people I knew in need.

Blow concluded–accurately–that the problem of poverty was not going to be solved by  personal generosity. It would require public policy– and public indifference continued to impede passage of such policies. He decided that, given his particular skills and his position with the Times,  the best thing he could do was advocate.

Blow’s column really resonated with me, not because of the specific issue he identified, but because that issue–poverty–shares an essential component of most of the issues Americans face right now. It is a problem that’s far too big for an individual to solve, or even substantially affect.

I don’t know about those of you who read this blog, or other people generally (it may simply be my own personality defect), but what depresses me are not the sorts of problems and challenges we all face in life. I can deal with those, because in most cases, if I work hard, I can do something about them. What depresses me is powerlessness-– an inability to solve a problem, whether personal or social, or even make a dent in it.

Most of what I see around me these days reinforces that powerlessness.

Any reasonably well-informed person in today’s America cannot help but see what seems to be the disintegration of our society in the face of the truly massive threats we confront. Yes, some of those threats have been with us a long time, although (thanks to the fact that we currently marinate in media and social media) we have become much more aware of them. But others, like climate change, pose challenges that are new–and monumental.

And then there’s gerrymandering, and a global pandemic and the utter insanity of a significant portion of the American population.

If we are sentient and even remotely aware, each of us has to ask ourselves the question Charles Blow posed in his column: what can I do? What possible impact can an individual make on problems that are national or even global in scope?

I suppose one answer is to work for the election of reasonable, competent people who take these problems seriously, although gerrymandering frequently defeats that effort. Another is to model appropriate behaviors in our own lives–to work for equity and inclusion and rational public policies in our own communities. But–in the absence of widespread public participation in those activities or the emergence of effective social movements devoted to them– any rational evaluation of their efficacy will conclude that they have very little impact. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do these things, but neither should we exaggerate their importance in the scheme of things…)

Charles Blow concluded that advocacy was the best thing he could do; as someone with a “bully pulpit” at a national newspaper, he is in a position to affect the national discussion. Most of us involved in advocacy don’t have that sort of audience. We are left feeling powerless–because in a very real sense, we are powerless.

Maybe that feeling–that acute awareness of a loss of agency–is why so many people are looking for someone to blame…


Demographics And Politics

As the results of the Trump- delayed census have emerged, we’ve learned that American diversity is both growing and shifting.

The overview–the national picture–is considerably less White, and that reality is further enraging the too-plentiful numbers of White Supremicists among us. Their hysteria–not unlike a child’s tantrum–is likely to have some ugly political repercussions. We can only hope that, in the scheme of things and the sweep of history, those repercussions are temporary.

When the picture focuses on distribution rather than on aggregate numbers, things get more interesting. Charles Blow has provided a rundown of those numbers in a recent column, and the basic thrust is that Black people are moving out of what were dismissively called the “inner cities.”

The term “inner city” has long been used as a derisive euphemism for Black — poor, blighted and in distress. But many inner cities in the North and West are becoming less and less Black because Black people are moving out.

Black populations in what were considered to be Black strongholds have been dwindling, and that has been happening all over the country. There has been a reverse migration wave of Black people from the North and West moving back to the South. Blow goes through an extensive list of cities that have lost Black populations.

Among the most interesting:

Detroit, once the Blackest big city in America, home of Motown, dropped from 82 percent Black in 2010 to 77 percent Black in 2020. The Hispanic, white and Asian populations all grew in the city over that period.

New York City, with two million Black residents, more than any other city in America, saw its Black population fall by 4.5 percent over the past decade. This came on the heels of the Black population declining 5.1 percent the previous decade, the first drop in the number of Black residents in recent history.

Harlem, according to the 2020 census, is now just 37% Black. Harlem!

Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles–Blow provides the numbers showing diminished Black population. He also shares the numbers showing the growth of Black population in the American South.

These shifts don’t mean that there are now fewer cities with Black majorities; the number is on the rise, as Brookings pointed out in 2019. It’s just that 90 percent of majority Black cities are now in the South. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that much of the municipal South is Black.

Ironically, Selma and Montgomery, Ala.; Jackson and Philadelphia, Miss.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Atlanta —places we associate with some of the worst episodes of America’s racist past– now have Black mayors.

All of this is politically relevant.

For a number of years, Republican Party leaders have been reacting to predictions that “demography is destiny”–fears that the growing diversity of America (and the decidedly Democratic lean of the country’s youth)–will soon make the GOP electorally irrelevant. That fear is what has prompted the GOP’s extreme gerrymandering, vote suppression tactics and efforts to control who counts the votes.

The movement of Black Americans out of easily demonized metropolitan centers changes the calculus. It’s harder to whip up fear of “those people” who live in the centers of large cities when so many of “those people” are White, young, upwardly mobile Starbucks drinkers. And as Stacy Abrams and her fellow-activists showed in Georgia, the previously solid South, which could be counted on to vote White, whatever party was carrying the banner of White Supremacy at any given time, is no longer so solid. It isn’t just cultural change, welcome as that is. It’s demographic shift. 

Blow didn’t include cities in Texas in his recitation, and it is likely that increasing demographic diversity there is due more to the growth of Latino populations than an influx  of Blacks, but when we think of states south of the Mason-Dixon Line currently headed by stubbornly reactionary Republicans, Texas certainly comes to mind. Whether Abbott’s frantic efforts to suppress minority votes in the face of demographic change will keep Texas in the Red column for another few years is anyone’s guess.

Blow says the new distribution of America’s Black population is producing “chocolate chip cities.” If–as sociologists tell us–bigotry is reduced by familiarity with members of previously marginalized populations, those “chocolate chip” cities bode well for civic amity.



Diagnosis And Treatment

Pointing out that a doctor cannot treat an illness successfully if that illness isn’t correctly identified/diagnosed is to state the glaringly obvious. I would suggest that the same caution should be applied when we attempt to address the ills of society.

Charles Blow–in my estimation–has offered precisely that insight in a recent opinion piece the New York Times.

Blow begins with what is now a depressingly familiar litany of the sins of the party that calls itself Republican–a cult that bears less and less resemblance to what used to be the mainstream of that party. As he asks, what do you call members of a party who are invested in an obvious lie–not to mention a liar “determined to undermine, corrupt and even destroy our democracy?” What about that party’s leaders, who feel entitled to use that lie “as a pretext to suppress the votes and voices of Americans with whom they disagree?”

What do you call a party where many of its members have worked against a lifesaving, society-freeing vaccine in the middle of a pandemic, exposing many of their own followers to the deadly virus, all for the sake of being contrarian, anti-establishment and anti-science?

Those accusations–that litany–is, or should be, stupefyingly familiar by now. The contribution Blow makes in this column is his insistence that this is anything but “politics as usual,” and that we need to recognize that fact if we are to summon the will and wit to overcome the threat these people pose to democracy and the rule of law.

I have heard all the things that the moderates and neutralists have to say: Overheated language helps nothing and alienates people who could otherwise be converted. Don’t cast as evil someone with whom you simply have a disagreement. Build bridges, don’t burn them.

I could understand and appreciate all of that in another time. I can recall being impressed by how well a conservative argument was asserted, even if I disagreed with it. I can remember when conservatism was just as intellectual as liberalism, and compromises could be made to feel like the combining of the best of both…

But we should also not underplay or sugarcoat the darkness of the current season.

I don’t see how we continue to pretend that this is politics as usual, that it’s normal squabbling between ideological opposites. No, something is deeply, dangerously wrong here. This is not the same as it has always been.

Blow doesn’t offer a strategy for dealing with the situation that he has accurately described, and I certainly don’t have a solution, or even a proposed intervention. But I do know that you cannot solve a problem you are unwilling to recognize. A doctor cannot cure someone’s cancer if she continues to insist that what ails the patient is just a common cold.

Let’s be honest: A significant minority of the American public is dangerously mentally ill. (Mental illness, as Mitch recently reminded us in a comment to a previous post, is ” a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction”) A troubling number of those who have been drinking this generation’s Kool Aid are acting out their fantasies–shooting up pizza parlors, staging an insurrection, denying the reality of a pandemic…Failure to recognize the extent to which the moment we occupy differs from the ideological or political disagreements most of us formerly experienced will make it impossible to fashion an effective response.

I wish I knew what that “effective response” might look like. Other than a massive GOTV effort, I don’t. But I do know–and yesterday’s blog highlighted– that we aren’t dealing with the common cold.


The Dilemma

I have found Charles Blow to be one of the most thoughtful and incisive columnists at the New York Times, and a recent column is an example.

Like many of us, Blow is ready to “move on,” but unsure what such “moving on” requires. Worse still, we are (choose your image) caught between a rock and a hard place, or faced with the perennial choice between chicken and egg. Blow uses an everyday dilemma faced by Blacks as an example:

You are receiving a service for which tipping is a customary practice. Maybe you’re taking a cab or receiving a beauty treatment; maybe having a drink at a bar or eating at a restaurant.

Your service provider is not Black. The service is poor. Your server is not at all attentive. You wait for things far longer than you believe you should or far longer than you believe others in the space are waiting.

When the check comes, what should the customer do? Blow says that there are studies showing  that Black people on average tip less. Studies also show that servers on average provide Black people inferior service. Given the accuracy of those results, a good-sized tip that rewards poor service might help erode the perception that Black folks don’t tip well–and as Blow says, perhaps make the next Black person’s service better. On the other hand, an average or below-average tip, the size merited by the poor service, risks cementing, in the server’s mind, the belief that Black people are poor tippers.

Neither alternative is particularly attractive.

Blow then points out that this is very similar to the dilemma faced by members of minority groups when the party that wants to keep them unequal loses an election.

There is always so much talk of unity and coming together, of healing wounds and repairing divisions. We then have to have some version of the tip debate: Do we prove to them that we can rise above their attempt to harm us or do we behave in a way that is consummate with the harm they tried to inflict?

There is a legitimate argument to be made that a spiral of recriminations will always descend into a hole of collective harm. Still, there must also be an acknowledgment that the prejudiced were trying to harm you and that, but for a few hundred thousand votes in the right states, they would have succeeded in exacting that harm.

There has been, as the column notes, ample evidence of Trump’s bigotries–against Blacks, against women, against (brown) immigrants. The vast majority of people who voted for him were well aware of that evidence. What Blow doesn’t say–but I will–is that Trump’s bigotries and racism were features, not bugs, of his campaign. His endorsement of bigotry– his normalization of racism and sexism–was at the heart of his appeal to more voters than we like to recognize.

The best you can say is that his voters certainly didn’t consider his “out and proud” racism disqualifying. So we are back to the chicken and egg.

Joe Biden, as he has always said, is seeking to be a unifying president, to be the president of the people who didn’t vote for him as well as the ones who did. I want to have that same optimistic spirit, but I must admit that my attempts at it may falter.

I don’t want to be the person who holds a grudge, but I also don’t want to be the person who ignores a lesson. The act of remembering that so many Americans were willing to continue the harm to me and others and to the country itself isn’t spiteful but wise.

Next month Joe Biden will be sworn in and the next chapter of America will begin. I plan to meet that day with the glow of optimism on my face, but I refuse to vanquish the shadow of remembrance falling behind me.

We share the conundrum. How do we model better, more truly patriotic behavior without inadvertently giving unacceptable and harmful behaviors and attitudes a pass?


White Panic

Charles Blow is one of the columnists for the New York Times whose essays I almost always find thoughtful and perceptive. In this one, especially, he hits the proverbial nail on the head.

Every so often it’s important to step back from the freak show of the moment so that you can see the whole circle. That has never been more important than at this moment and under this administration.

Everything that has happened during recent years is all about one thing: fear by white people that they will inevitably lose their numerical advantage in this country; and with that loss comes an alteration of American culture and shifting of American power away from white dominance and white control. White people don’t want to become one of many minority groups in America and have others — possibly from Asia, Latin America, Africa or the Middle East — holding the reins of power, and dictating inclusion and equity.

Once you see White Panic as the root of Trumpism, so many other things become clear: the imperviousness of Trump supporters to evidence of the harm he’s doing, the hypocrisy of “Christian” support for a man who has admitted to violating the values they purport to hold, the utter lack of concern for the humanitarian tragedy at the border…

Blow identifies the thread that connects so many of the issues that we’ve been confronting:

This is manifested in every issue you can imagine: the Confederate monuments fight, opposition to Black Lives Matter, intransigence on gun control, voter suppression laws, the Muslim ban, the hard line on asylum seekers coming across the southern border, calls to abolish the visa lottery, the defaming of majority black countries, efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the addition of a census question that could cause an undercount of Hispanics, the stacking of the courts with far-right judges (the vast majority of whom are white men). You name it, each issue is laced the white panic about displacement.

I have previously posted about the Cato report documenting the percentage of terrorist attacks attributable to White Nationalists; Blow references similar testimony by  the assistant director of the FBI’s counter-terrorism division. Of the 850 domestic terrorism investigations currently underway, he testified that 40 percent involve perpetrators with racist ideologies.  A significant majority are self-identified White Nationalists or White Supremacists.

Just as Trump saw fine people among the Nazis in Charlottesville, he is unable to see — or more precisely, to admit and address — white nationalism and white supremacy because he is at this moment these causes’ greatest champion.

The loyal MAGA-hat wearers may tell themselves that they differ from the violent fringe, that they aren’t like the David Dukes and other “out” Neo-Nazis, but their motives aren’t all that dissimilar.

The violent white nationalists are simply the leading edge, the violent vanguard, of the teeming masses of “soft” white nationalists and white supremacists, those who use stigmas and statutes as their weapons, those who have convinced themselves that their motivations have nothing to do with American racism and everything to do with American culture.

Blow connects some important dots. As he notes, in this “iteration of America,” securing white power and delaying displacement is to be achieved “through a fundamental restructuring of the laws around which babies get born, which addictions get treated, which bodies are allowed to immigrate or seek asylum and whose voice and votes get counted.”

Did you wonder why White Supremacists cheered the news about Alabama’s draconian anti-abortion law?

As the racist Iowa congressman, Steve King, tweetedin March of 2017, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

The proposed census changes have a similar goal: If you’re losing in the game of numbers, change the way you count.

As NPR reported on Tuesday:

“Challenges threatening the upcoming 2020 census could put more than four million people at risk of being undercounted in next year’s national head count, according to new projections by the Urban Institute. The nonpartisan think tank found that the danger of an inaccurate census could hit some of the country’s most difficult to count populations the hardest. Based on the institute’s analysis, the 2020 census could lead to the worst undercount of black and Latino and Latina people in the U.S. since 1990.”

Don’t just grouse over each individual fruit of the poison tree, also focus on the root.

Right now, America is facing a moral challenge every bit as profound as the country’s earlier conflict over slavery.

Will we live up to our professed values, or–like the “Christians” who have discarded their theology in order to protect their privilege–will we elevate loyalty to our tribes over adherence to our ostensible principles?