Tag Archives: racism

Downtown

As regular readers have undoubtedly noticed, I frequently use this blog as a platform to vent–and that’s what I plan to do today. Usually, my rants are political, but despite political overtones, this one is personal.

First, some background.

I use Facebook primarily as a method for “pushing out” this blog–I very rarely post about personal matters, and because I am essentially viewing the site as a marketing tool, I have accepted lots of Facebook “friends” I’ve never met. Recently, one of them posted about the prosecutor’s race in my county, and that led to a string of dismissive (and easily disproven) comments about crime and downtown Indianapolis.

I have lived in downtown’s historic neighborhoods since 1980, and eighteen months ago, my husband and I downsized to an apartment in the heart of downtown’s central business district.

I now live barely two blocks from a Starbucks that the company is closing, a decision accompanied by pious declarations to the effect that closure was impelled by concerns for customer safety. Believing that excuse requires ignoring contemporaneous Starbucks closures in SIXTEEN other cities, and the fact that safety concerns seem not to have affected the other NINE downtown Starbucks locations. (Given the enormous number of competing coffee shops operating in just the Mile Square, my guess is over-saturation…)

Several people commenting on the post used the Starbucks closure to assert that downtown Indianapolis is not only unsafe, but–and I quote– a “shithole.”

Let me describe that “shithole” for those who don’t live in my neighborhood.

Saturday night, I attended an event at the downtown History Center. On my way home (four blocks), I passed restaurants filled to overflowing with diners inside and out (it was still a balmy evening, and downtown is blessed with numerous eateries offering outside dining.) Throngs of young couples were strolling up and down Massachusetts Avenue–a revitalized stretch of street hosting bars, restaurants, retail shops and theaters– all of which my husband and I frequent.

On foot.  We also walk two blocks to our preferred grocery, cleaners and hardware store…

Counterintuitively for a “shithole,” downtown Indianapolis attracts ongoing construction of apartment complexes and condominiums. People keep moving downtown to occupy them. (For the past few years, new construction has been so constant my husband and I joke as we pass a new complex: “Gee–that wasn’t there last Tuesday!”) As a recent report from the Indianapolis Star put it, renters and buyers continue to show a “high demand for Downtown living, a trend driven by amenities such as walkable streets, contemporary restaurants and bustling nightlife.”

If there’s a legitimate concern about downtown living, it’s the cost:a lot of  people are paying top dollar to enjoy the ambience and amenities of our downtown “shithole.”

Visit the website for Downtown Indy and find lists of residential options (both affordable and “wow, that’s pricey”) along with lists of the dozens of festivals, venues and events enjoyed by the 30,000+ of us who currently live downtown– as well as the thousands who come down to attend  them.

Indianapolis does have a crime problem–as most cities do–but it is primarily located in outer, impoverished neighborhoods. 

That said, I’m pretty sure I know what accounts for the ignorant accusations about downtown Indy. 

When I look at the throngs of people on the streets, most are young, and many are Black, Brown or Asian. A number of couples are interracial.  Unfortunately, depressing numbers of  Americans continue to equate nonwhite races with crime and decay. I’d be willing to bet good money that the people posting sneering comments about downtown Indianapolis hold stereotypes that equate “downtown” with “ghetto” and “scary.”

Prejudice can work both ways, of course.

For years, when my husband and I would drive past those grim, cookie-cutter, tree-less suburban developments that clearly require long commutes to work or shop, he would observe that “this is the environment people are willing to accept in order to avoid Black neighbors.” I would have to remind him that not every resident of suburbia or exurbia is a bigot–that there are non-racist reasons nice people might want a big yard or a quiet neighborhood.

I’ll end this screed by taking my own advice, and conceding that downtown living isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The vitality, walkability and street life I treasure can be off-putting to others, and those differences are just differences–they don’t necessarily reflect ignorance or prejudice.

On the other hand, when someone describes the center of my city–my neighborhood–in demonstrably inaccurate, pejorative terms, I’m pretty confident I know where that opinion comes from. And it isn’t pretty.

It’s just one more data point demonstrating the prevalence and persistence of  American racism.

 

Accounting For MAGA

In a recent newsletter from The Atlantic, Tom Nichols echoed a frustration of my own. He wrote that, in his lifetime, he’d seen” polio defeated and smallpox eradicated. Now hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead—and still dying—because they refused a lifesaving vaccine as a test of their political loyalty to an ignoramus.”

Ever since 2016, a significant percentage of my posts have revolved around the reality (or actually, the unreality) of that political loyalty, and my inability to understand what–other than racial grievance–might account for it.  Study after study, however, has confirmed that it is, indeed, racism that explains support for Trump and the MAGA movement.

The Guardian recently published an article building on that research. The author began by commenting on President Biden’s forceful condemnation of Trump and MAGA, and as he noted, that attribution was correct —so far as it went.

The deeper, more longstanding threat, however, was articulated by historian Taylor Branch in a 2018 conversation with author Isabel Wilkerson recounted in Wilkerson’s book Caste. As they discussed how the rise of white domestic terrorism under Trump was part of the backlash to the country’s growing racial diversity, Branch noted that, “people said they wouldn’t stand for being a minority in their own country”. He went on to add, “the real question would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

 Whiteness is the deeper threat because championing whiteness is what makes Trump powerful. People forget that Trump was not particularly well-regarded before he started attacking Mexican immigrants and signaling to white people that he would be the defender of their way of life. In the months before he launched his campaign, he was polling at just 4% in the May 2015 ABC/Washington Post poll. After stirring the racial resentment pot, his popularity took off, growing exponentially in a matter of weeks and propelling him to the front of the pack by mid-July 2015 when he commanded support of 24% of voters, far ahead of all the other Republican candidates.

Of course, Trump’s discovery of the power of racism is nothing new. (That’s why the Right doesn’t want accurate history taught in our schools.) The author quoted George Wallace’s epiphany:  “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes – and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about n—–s – and they stomped the floor.”

People who’d dismissed Trump as a loudmouth buffoon “stomped the floor” when he began talking about (brown) Mexicans and Muslims.

The article reminded readers of Wallace, Nixon’s “southern strategy,” and the fact that David Duke–an “out and proud” Klansman–had attracted the support of 44% of Louisiana’s voters when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

The good news is that the proponents of whiteness do not command majority support. The original Confederates themselves were in the minority and represented just 11% of the country’s white population. People who enjoy majority support have no need to unleash fusillades of voter suppression legislation in the states with the largest numbers of people of color. Yet, from the grandfather clauses of the 1800s to the restrictive voting laws passed last year in the south and south-west, we are seeing an unrelenting practice of trying to depress and destroy democracy by engaging in what the writer Ron Brownstein has described as, “stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change”.

It’s one thing to confirm that a majority of Americans aren’t racist. It’s another thing to ensure that the people in that majority turn out to vote. As the author says,

In order to defend democracy and win the fight for the soul of the nation, two things must happen. One is to make massive investments in the people and organizations working to expand voting and civic participation. Coalitions like America Votes Georgia and Arizona Wins played critical roles in bringing hundreds of thousands of people of color into the electorate, helping to transform those former Confederate bastions.

We also need to “name and shame” the numerous political figures who are appealing to racist sentiments in order to turn out their supporters. Too many liberals shrink from calling out those who are trafficking in racism–it seems so uncivil. But racism is also uncivil–and far more dangerous.

To ultimately prevail in this defense of our democracy, we must clearly understand the underlying forces imperiling the nation, name the nature of the opposition, and summon the majority of Americans to unapologetically affirm that this is a multi-racial country.

This is a test, and we cannot afford to fail.

 

 

Christian Grievance

Sometimes, a news article will hit several of my hot buttons. This recent one managed to do so. (Not that it is particularly difficult to piss me off…the older I get, the crankier…)

Here’s the gist of the story: a poll taken by Politico discovered that

about 57 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of Americans overall, believe the Constitution would not allow America to be declared a “Christian nation.” Respondents were then asked “Would You Favor or Oppose the United States Officially Declaring the United States to be a Christian Nation?”

Sixty-one percent of Republicans were in favor of just that, with 78 percent of Republicans who identify as an evangelical Christian backing the idea. Support was even higher among older Republicans.

Regular readers of this blog know of my preoccupation with America’s low levels of civic and constitutional literacy. These percentages reflect that only 57 percent of Republicans understand–or are prepared to acknowledge– the intended effect of the First Amendment, or the history of America’s constitutional debates.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of America’s still-pervasive racism. Evidently, there are still a lot of White folks who are dogged believers that the pre-Civil War South should rise again, whether or not it actually will…

Per Politico

Our polling found that white grievance is highly correlated with support for a Christian nation. White respondents who say that members of their race have faced more discrimination than others are most likely to embrace a Christian America. Roughly 59 percent of all Americans who say white people have been discriminated against a lot more in the past five years favor declaring the U.S. a Christian nation, compared to 38 percent of all Americans. White Republicans who said white people have been more discriminated against also favored a Christian nation (65 percent) by a slightly larger percentage than all Republicans (63 percent).

Regular readers are also well aware of my language prejudices; I have this old English-teacher belief that words have meanings, and that communication requires that the people using those words broadly agree upon those meanings.

In any sane world, the assertion that White Americans suffer discrimination would be met with incomprehension. I know that political strategists dislike the contemporary use of the term “privilege”–its users sound elitist, and when one thinks of “privilege,” what comes to mind is unfair advantage. (Actually, White skin does confer advantage, just not the kind of material advantage that this particular word brings to mind.)

The fact remains that, in the good old U.S. of A., what is perceived of as discrimination against White people is a very overdue erosion of the considerably privileged status that skin color has historically  afforded them.

When I express my frequent criticisms of Christian Nationalism (which is, in reality, White Christian Nationalism), I try to be very clear that I am not criticizing Christianity. (To appropriate a phrase, some of my best friends are Christian..) I am happy to report that real Christians agree with me, as the following excerpts from a statement from Christians Against Christian Nationalism makes clear.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

The statement affirms basic constitutional principles: That “one’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community,” and that
“government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.” And it affirms others:

Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

So Republicans who want to label America as a “Christian Nation” manage to hit several of my hot buttons: concerns about civic literacy and the normalization of racism, annoyance at the misuse of language, and deep, deep fear of the rise of Christian Nationalism.

Politico did it all with one statistic…

 

Choosing To Believe

In the mid-1990s, after publication of my first book (What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?), I was a guest on a call-in radio show in South Carolina. My publisher had asked for my travel schedule, and booked me on the show–while failing to tell me that it followed three hours of Rush Limbaugh…

It was rough.

One caller shared a “quote” by James Madison to the effect that the Founders gave the Bill of Rights to people who lived by the Ten Commandments. I responded by saying that, not only had that “quote” been debunked by Madison scholars, it was contrary to everything we know Madison did say. The caller yelled, “Well, I choose to believe it!” and hung up.

Today, echoes of that conversation are everywhere. The phenomenon even has a name: belief polarization.

Belief polarization has been the subject of substantial scholarly research, as Thomas Edsall recently reported in an essay for the New York Times.

In a paper that came out in June, “Explanations for Inequality and Partisan Polarization in the U.S., 1980 — 2020,” Elizabeth Suhay and Mark Tenenbaum, political scientists at American University, and Austin Bartola, of Quadrant Strategies, provide insight into why so much discord permeates American politics:

Scholars who research polarization have almost exclusively focused on the relationship between Americans’ policy opinions and their partisanship. In this article, we discuss a different type of partisan polarization underappreciated by scholars: “belief polarization,” or disagreements over what people perceive to be true.

In a finding that is especially disheartening to naive people who (like yours truly) harp on the importance of credible evidence, scholars have found that two people with opposing prior beliefs often “both strengthen their beliefs after observing the same data.”

In a 2021 paper, researchers found

“ample evidence that people sustain different beliefs even when faced with the same information, and they interpret that information differently.” They also note that “stark differences in beliefs can arise and endure due to human limitations in interpreting complex information.”

Edsall quotes an explanation of belief polarization authored by professors of philosophy at Vanderbilt.

Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Like-minded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Like-minded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take, and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.

Short version: humans of all kinds are irrational.

The most recent examples of belief polarization, of course, involve Trump: in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, MAGA supporters remain convinced by the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen; Democrats and independents are equally certain it wasn’t. And more recently, Right-wingers (and of course, Fox News) are calling the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago a corrupt politicization of federal investigative authority. The rest of us counter that the raid is consistent with the rule of law, a reassuring demonstration that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.

Edsall explores Americans’ polarized beliefs about the economy, poverty,  climate change, and gender identity. Then he delivers a profoundly depressing statement: “There is further evidence that even people who are knowledgeable about complex issues are sharply polarized along partisan lines.”

He quotes from a paper titled “More Accurate, but No Less Polarized: Comparing the Factual Beliefs of Government Officials and the Public,” demonstrating that even though “political elites are consistently more accurately informed than the public,” that increased accuracy doesn’t translate into reduced belief polarization”. The study challenged the assumption that we will disagree less about the facts if we know more.

And most depressing, albeit unsurprising: it turns out that racism plays a central part in America’s polarization Researchers have found that–while political campaigns don’t change levels of prejudice–” they can prime these attitudes, or make them more or less salient and therefore more or less politically relevant.”

As one set of researchers found,

Trump not only attracted whites with more conservative views on race; he also made his white supporters more likely to espouse increasingly extreme views on issues related to immigration and on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings of African Americans.

In other words, political rhetoric can sharpen racial attitudes–and (like my long-ago caller) reinforce and legitimize what we choose to believe.

 

 

Where Do We Place The Lever?

I was going through some files recently, and came across Governing essay from last September that echoed my own growing despair over what the author called “the situation.” He’d been invited to a conference that was ostensibly about the future of the Badlands, but during the telephoned invitation, it was suggested that they would also discuss “the situation.”

That phrase triggered his inquiry.

For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.

If–as he assumed–these and other crises we face are what was meant by “the situation,” what could be accomplished in that discussion? As he noted, it’s a lot easier to diagnose “the situation” than to identify a prescription.

More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court.

The fact that his imagined conversation was self-evidently inadequate to the challenge mirrors much of the conversation on this blog: there’s general agreement that America’s society is in crisis and its governance is in thrall to a minority composed of frightened, uninformed  and frequently deranged citizens–but there is no such agreement when it comes to the really important question: what must we do?

The author illustrated the dilemma by quoting Archimedes, who said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” The question, as he noted, is: where do we put the lever?

After citing research showing that that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate, he makes a point that I endlessly repeat:

If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”

Ignorance, of course, isn’t the only threat to democracy and stability. The vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest is a clear danger. The author writes that the inability of our government to address climate change is another–and he wrote this essay before the Supreme Court further hobbled government’s ability to do so. He acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the racism that is an all-too-obvious motivation of the MAGA crowds. He gives a nod to Eisenhower”s warning about the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the essay doesn’t answer his own question. Instead, he argues (feebly) for a “spiritual renaissance.” I think the reason I haven’t previously written about this particular essay is my instinctive aversion to that cop-out. This often-encountered longing for a “renaissance” rests on a very dubious belief that Americans were once more “spiritual”–a belief uncomfortably close to the “we were once a Christian nation” fantasy. In any event, he is silent on the rather significant question of how the desired increase in spirituality is to be obtained.

So here we are–like doctors who can describe the disease but have no magic potion with which to treat it. We’re left with what is, admittedly, a very good question: where do we put Archimedes’ lever?

It’s a question that suggests another: are our problems far too numerous for a lever even to work?