FEBRUARY 12, 2012 10:53PM
Love and the Republican Primaries
“We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love…Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro.” Martin Luther King, Jr., An Experiment in Love (1958)
For so many people in this country, watching the Republican primaries has been tantamount to living the experience of being under siege. From Newt Gingrich’s racist assertion, for example, that young African American males should, as a means of developing a work ethic, take jobs as janitors instead of embrace the pimp life, to Pete Hoekstra’s racist, anti-Chinese Super Bowl political ad featuring an Asian woman speaking “broken” English; from Rick Santorum’s diatribe against the 9th Circuit’s holding that California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, to Mitt Romney’s statement that the answer to illegal immigration is “self-deportation”; from the assault on women’s reproductive rights signified by the Planned Parenthood/Susan G. Komen fiasco, to Newt Gingrich’s accusation that President Obama is the “food stamp president,” it is clear that Republicans have declared war on some of us or, to be more accurate, have widened and intensified a war which they started years ago. Indeed, what many Republicans obviously want – beyond, that is, a mere desire to capture the White House – is a world where some of us exist only as segregated, second-class, closeted, deported, submissive and downright invisible…people (I almost said “citizens,” but their redistricting games suggest otherwise). For these and so many other reasons, the Republican primaries have been difficult to bear. On more than one occasion I have found myself shouting at the radio or throwing something in retaliation at the television screen. And I am sure that I have not been alone in expressing such rage.
And yet, what I am discovering as the primaries grind on and on and on is that while those of us who have been targeted have had to bear during these last few months the Republicans’ discursive (and at times physical) violence, we have also been bearing witness. And what we have been bearing witness to is the truth which their violence reveals: that racism, sexism, homophobia and other expressions of hate constitute the language of those among us who are broken. As was the case with the segregationists to whom Dr. King referred, the “souls” of our Republican candidates and of those who think like and support them are “greatly scarred’ and their personalities “greatly distorted” by their claims to, as well as exercise of, power and privilege. Just turn on Fox News and tell me what you see (do this especially when the primaries head south).
Thus, while it may seem that rage is the correct response to their attempted assaults on the dignity of African Americans, immigrants of color, gays and lesbians of all races, and all women, rage is not, nor can it ever be, a correct response. Instead, what is required – as Dr. King himself realized when facing down southern segregationists, many of whom populate or have populated the Republican Party – is nothing less than our Love. Indeed, they need it, as evidenced not only by the mean-spiritedness of their words, policies, and actions, but also by their seeming willingness to plunge this country into economic, social, and cultural chaos. Such eagerness to “work against community” and thus work “against the whole of creation” can only be expressed by those who are greatly scarred, i.e., by those who are unable or unwilling to recognize that “all life is interrelated” and thus to see that when they harm their brothers and sisters, they absolutely harm themselves. To offer Love is to recognize (and call out) the scarring and to heal it – or, at the very least, to heal the damage that it causes – with energy that restores community.
Lest I be misunderstood, Love “in this connection” – to continue quoting Dr. King – “means understanding, redemptive good will….an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative.” This Love “seeks to preserve and create community.” It is not by any means naïve sentimentalism or like. Just as it was impossible, as King recognized, to like the white segregationists who hurled rocks or stood up to declare the permanence of segregation, it is impossible – at least it is for me – to like, say, Newt Gingrich. But I wholeheartedly wish that he be free from suffering.
Love is also not acquiescence, inaction, or silence in the face of injustice. It is, quite simply, the exercise of power that is both spiritually and morally grounded.
How so? First, through Love I reframe the issues in ways that make clear how at odds the Republican onslaught is with the creation of a more just and peaceful world. Refusing to become mired in a discussion, for example, of whether or not young African American boys should work as janitors in order to develop a work ethic, I simply affirm my vision of the world as one in which young African American boys attain excellence because we have put in place systems that truly educate them, support their families, and thus invest in their success. And then I invite those Republicans who carry such racist views of young African American boys to join me in making this vision real. They may not accept the invitation, but at least they have the option of joining a project that could only be more healing than the one upon which they have chosen to embark.
Through Love I also make clear that hate is powerless in the face of my intention to create a just and peaceful world, for to say “I love you” to those who hate is also to say to them “your hate cannot stop me.” And this is critical for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it serves to disrupt or undercut the addictive pleasure that many Republicans and their supporters apparently get out of hate (as was clearly displayed by the audience during the South Carolina debates). That pleasure in hate is part of the scarring, the brokenness of those who speak and live racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of violence. It is a pleasure that counts on our being and responding as harmed in fact – so much so that we falter in our quest for a better world. To offer Love, however, is to say that I cannot be harmed or stopped because I know that I am not the person whom you narrate as me. And because I know that the story you tell is really a narrative about whom you choose to be, then it is incumbent upon me to offer you my compassion. After all, since I am working to create a just world, one to which I hope you will contribute, I can only wish for your well-being.
I should point out that Love also undercuts whatever pleasure I might receive from responding with anything less than Love. Let me just explain for a moment what I mean by this notion of “pleasure.” In the late 1980s, I marched with others in Forsyth County, Georgia after previous marchers were brutally attacked by the county’s white residents. During the course of the march, we encountered a resident who penned a sign that read “Go Home Nigers.” Having noticed that he misspelled “Niggers,” we promptly chanted “you can’t spell!” To say that this ruined his pleasure is truly an understatement, for he actually took out a lighter and attempted to burn down his sign. On the other hand, to say that we enjoyed his angry response barely captures the pleasure that we felt witnessing his meltdown. And yet, just as he revealed the depth of his scars by the mere fact that he penned such a sign, so also had we revealed ours when we assailed his dignity. It was a moment, an interaction that did nothing at all to advance the creation of the “beloved community.”
Love renders such pleasure impossible and makes the expression of hate and rage precisely what it should be: an incredibly painful act. Through Love, then, I not only creatively resist and transform external violence, but I also “avoid an internal violence of spirit.”
To Love is ultimately to refuse to accept an invitation to poison my vision with my own reactive violence and hate. Examined from this perspective, Love is clearly something that makes one accountable to all that Love requires. If I have a vision of a just and loving world, then I must live, speak and act in ways that manifest this vision (this is no small challenge, as I am also finding out. In the process of writing this piece I have deleted much, precisely because what I wrote contained so much rage and bitterness). This means that I must hold Republicans accountable as well. Though broken, scarred and distorted, they can and must choose to live in this world differently. Being healed is truly a choice. While I recognize that they will probably continue to walk the same brutal path, I will nevertheless hold out hope and leave for them a place at the table. After all, change is gonna come.
FEBRUARY 20, 2012 9:57PM
On phony theology and spiritual violence
If al Qa’ida’s destruction of the World Trade Center is the barometer from which we measure religious violence, then we’ll fail to notice and confront other acts that, while not equally as horrific, are nevertheless destructive assaults carried out in the name of religion.
Take, for example, Rick Santorum’s statement (made during his Ohio campaign stop) that President Obama subscribes to a “phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible,” Santorum offered for clarification, “but a different theology. But no less a theology.” This statement constitutes religious violence because it is an attack – executed in the name of religious belief – by which Santorum meant not only to situate the President outside of some unspoken norm and thus outside of community; but also to render the President, and anyone who subscribes to his beliefs (or, for that matter, anyone who fails to subscribe to Santorum’s world view), as objects worthy of contempt. In the name of religion, Santorum essentially invited “us” to view those who hold “a different theology” as different and separate from, if not less than, “ourselves.”
Or take, as another example, the much-reported opposition that has been expressed by many African American communities in Maryland – particularly those identified as “faith” communities – to the state of Maryland’s recent move to legalize gay marriage. (I bring this issue up in particular not only because I grew up in Maryland and have family there whom I visit frequently, but also because I believe that it is critical to confront religious violence when perpetrated by those in our families or in “our communities.” Indeed, such a confrontation forces us to examine our investment in a sentimental love that buys our silence and acquiescence in the face of intimate expressions of hate.) Like Santorum, these communities – though certainly not all, I should point out – have characterized, in the name of religion, gays and lesbians as outsiders whose rights “society” is not bound to respect. Even more insidious, they have suggested that we are dangerous because we will, by gaining our rights, harm society as a whole. For example, the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which was formed by black churches and includes the Maryland Catholic Conference, writes on its website that if “activist judges or politicians were to succeed in redefining marriage in Maryland in the future, there would be profound consequences for religious organizations, individuals, and small businesses—and for society itself.” To be specific,
“when marriage ceases to have its historic meaning and understanding, over time fewer and fewer people will marry. We will have an inevitable increase in children born out of wedlock, an increase in fatherlessness, a resulting increase if female and child poverty, and a higher incidence of all the documented social ills associated with children being raised in a home without their married biological parents.”
Given the danger that we pose, MMA implies, those of faith must organize against us if “society” is to be saved.
Rick Santorum, and those African American faith communities in Maryland that are opposed to gay marriage, are of course staking a claim that their theology – whatever it might be – is the real, true thing, a belief beyond critique or judgment, as they are also staking a claim about their authenticity. So against his characterization of President Obama as some religious Other, Santorum set himself up as the embodiment of spiritual truth and thus as a person worthy of acclaim, if not the presidency itself. And the anti-gay marriage faith communities, along the same thread, have taken on the mantle of being the purveyors of true religion.
To create communities of insiders and outsiders; to encourage an atmosphere of separation, distrust, and exclusion in the name of religion (or not) is to direct violence against the humanity of those considered outsiders because it is to proclaim that “you do not belong within the human community or within any human community worthy of regard.” It is, in other words, to inflict, or attempt to inflict, spiritual harm. That this kind of violence has frequently set the stage and provided the rationale for the expression of physical violence is demonstrated by historical examples too numerous to name (though the events of 9/11 certainly come to mind).
But to inflict spiritual harm on others in the name of religion or otherwise is not without consequence to those who choose to do so. In fact, they have surely declared war on themselves, for in their attempt to thrust others outside of community, they have in reality set themselves apart and thus suffer tremendous self-inflicted wounds. Most tragically, they have surrendered their quest for meaning, their search for a higher truth and understanding, to a narrow agenda of division, discord, and hate, an agenda which they in turn frame as a private right to believe.
This is true for both Rick Santorum and those faith communities that I’ve addressed. They cannot see, or perhaps they do not want to see, that they have made themselves casualties of a theology which has at its center the god of hate – and I’m not necessarily talking about Christianity here, though they may name it as such. We have to allow ourselves to wonder about the kind of work – the contortions of spirit and conscience – that our brothers and sisters have to do in order to interpret such self-inflicted harm as spiritual joy. And we have to allow ourselves to wonder because doing so will enable us to see them more clearly and thus to ground ourselves in compassionate action, i.e., action by which we, “with love…force our brothers [and sisters] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from” the reality of the injustices that they perpetrate “and begin to change it” (to quote James Baldwin). What this might require of us, however, is that we put squarely on the table as the object of compassionate action that which we have, for too long, given a pass: private expressions of hate and discrimination in so-called private spaces.
In his “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?…Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’” Some of them, as King well knew, were cheering along when “Governor Wallace gave the clarion call for defiance and hatred.” Some of them threw bottles and stones.
King did not march into or on those churches, those private spaces, some of which were no doubt the breeding ground of greater hate and violence. Maybe the time for such love in action has come.
FEBRUARY 24, 2012 10:40PM
Lynching and the legitimacy of gay marriage
“Blacks were hung, firebombed. They were shot. Where are the whites who were shot because of their sexuality?”
So goes the rationale by which Emmett Burns was moved to vote against the gay marriage bill just recently passed by Maryland’s state senate. An African American Democrat from Baltimore County who serves on the Maryland House of Delegates, Burns was one of 67 members of the House who opposed the bill.
Delegate Burns can easily find the answer to his question by conducting a simple Google search. That’s what I did and, sure enough, I found some white people who were “shot because of their sexuality.” But I doubt that Mr. Burns is really interested in the answer to his question. I sincerely hope that I am wrong; however, it appears to me that he is interested instead in advancing an agenda that is both homophobic and racist and which, in the end, directly and adversely affects the African American citizens whom he presumes to represent.
How so? Let me count the ways.
First, by setting up a false dichotomy between black rights and gay rights, Mr. Burns has essentially defined gay rights as a white issue and gay communities as white. And taking his statement as a frame of reference, it appears that when he voted against the gay marriage bill, he did so not only on the basis of sexuality, but also on the basis of race. Since no whites were ever “shot because of their sexuality” – a fact which Mr. Burns suggests is a consequence of their whiteness and its attendant privileges – whites (who are in same-sex relationships) do not deserve the right to marry. Put another way, in order for white gays and lesbians to deserve marriage rights, they have to have suffered violence that resembles the kind that African Americans suffered in their quest for civil rights – which means, ultimately, that they have to be subjected to acts of violence from which their whiteness provides no protection.
Given the absurdity of this argument, Mr. Burns is clearly relying upon the issue of African American rights to mask his homophobia.
Second, by framing gay marriage as black rights versus gay (white) rights, Delegate Burns has also defined black communities solely in terms of heterosexuality and black rights solely in terms of heterosexual privilege. For Mr. Burns, his African American gay and lesbian constituents simply do not exist or, if they do, they have no rights that he apparently feels bound to respect. Mr. Burns’ disregard for African American gays and lesbians – which includes his implicit denial of our historical role in securing African American rights (he obviously does not include us among those who were “hung” and “shot”) – is part and parcel of the violence we often face in black and other communities, whether that violence be physical, psychic or spiritual. And it is violence perpetrated “because of [our] sexuality.”
Third, Delegate Burns contributes to the practice of measuring the injustices of homophobia in terms of white communities (a practice, by the way, that is popular among many white gay and lesbian advocates, some of whom feel they have become “the new blacks.” Does that make African American lesbians and gays, I wonder, the new new blacks, or just simply nonexistent?). Viewed from the perspective of African American gay and lesbian experiences, however, it is clear that denying us the right to marry contributes to 1) the erosion of African American wealth because we are refused (for example) tax benefits, certain property rights, and shared government benefits (Social Security and Medicare); 2) the inability of African Americans to access health care, and thus to the deterioration of African American health (a partner might not receive the benefit of insurance coverage, for example); 3) African American experiences of workplace discrimination and job insecurity; 4) the difficulties African Americans have in securing adequate housing or even purchasing homes; and, 5) further lack of recourse for African Americans to the judicial system in order to vindicate rights (for example, pursuing wrongful death benefits). That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Viewed from our perspective, Mr. Burns’ and others’ opposition to same-sex marriage must be seen for what it is: an injustice that makes heavier for some African Americans the burdens that have resulted from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. That Mr. Burns and other African American delegates voted against Maryland’s gay marriage bill is, therefore, at least ironic, especially given the fact that they did so as African American delegates of the first confederate state to adopt such a law.
The movements to secure African American rights were expressions of “justice at its best” because they were expressions of “love correcting everything that stands against love.” To oppose gay marriage is to stand against love, and to wield our legacy as a weapon with which to deny anyone’s freedom is to fail those who were hung and firebombed and shot and killed to make the Beloved Community a reality.
MARCH 5, 2012 9:28PM
This is Why Obama is Black
Let’s just be honest: one of the reasons President Obama so infuriates many Republicans is because (among other things) he so ably performs a particular kind of whiteness or, at the very least, an idea of whiteness that Republicans consider the true essence (as well as property) of men who are phenotypically white. Educated, articulate, financially successful, powerful, rational, family-centered, a man of faith – these are just some of the things claimed as the essence of white male identity. And because Obama embodies these attributes, he just does not fit the “blackness” that Republicans imagine as the truth of what black men are (i.e., blackness a la Willie Horton, the angry black man, the welfare fraud, the pimp, the baby’s daddy. The Nigger. Unfortunately, I can go on, but need I say more?).
Hence, over the last four years many Republicans have searched incessantly – and with a certain desperation – for the perfect frame by which to capture President Obama, a frame through which they will finally be able to reveal President Obama as the supreme black Other whom he has so far managed to camouflage. By so doing, Republicans hope to reassert, in post-Reconstruction fashion, the white order of things. It is for these reasons and others that we have been subjected to such myths as the Mau-Mau Kenyan; the foreign born usurper; the Muslim; the bastard son of a promiscuous, “I’ll even have sex with a dog” mother; the religious phony; the affirmative action baby (his grades weren’t that good!); the food stamp president; the skinny ghetto crackhead (spoken by Brent Bozell) who “talks honky” (spoken by Rush Limbaugh). The list is astounding for its breadth and malicious intent. But because President Obama performs “whiteness” with such finesse, the Republicans’ attempts to make him “black” in the ways that their idea of blackness has served them before – at least since the days of President Nixon’s southern strategy – have utterly failed to gain real traction.
By stating that President Obama ably performs whiteness is not to say, of course, that he is white or that he even aspires to be white. It is simply to say that whiteness is a construct, one that is clearly subject to usurpation regardless of the fact that it is so heavily policed (perhaps the finesse with which President Obama performs it is also infuriating to those on the left who would prefer a blackness a little less cool and aloof, a little more emotive if not downright angry. A blackness with balls.)
And yet, Barak is black, isn’t he? But what Republicans fail to see is that his being black has nothing to do with there being such a thing as “blackness.” Instead, it has everything to do with President Obama’s every day experiences of white racism, experiences the Republicans have been more than willing and ecstatic to create. From screaming “lies” during President Obama’s State of the Union address to making jokes about his mother and father (who, after all, is apparently one step removed from a dog), the Republicans have been subjecting the President – and the rest of us – to one racist assault after another. His position as President of the United States has not protected him from white racism by any stretch of the imagination. Hence, he is truly a brotha.
However, the dissonance created by the Republicans’ idea of blackness and the reality of President Obama himself has ironically defamiliarized the Republicans’ racial strategy. Although for years characterized as the deployment of racially “coded” language as a means to consolidate the white vote, the fact is that the strategy is, and always has been, straight-up racist propaganda. As applied to President Obama, it can now be seen (at least by those who had previously chosen not to see the obvious) for what it is because it just simply does not work in the same ways anymore.
And so the frenzy, the desperation, all of which will continue because Obama is black and occupies the Office of the Presidency, an office that is – at least for many Republicans – supposed to be white.
MARCH 11, 2012 11:06PM
Rush Limbaugh as Spiritual Practice (oh – and Obama, too)
I cannot even begin to list the expletives that I have used over the course of the last week or so when I’ve had the opportunity to speak about, or listen to the various talk shows addressing, or read myriad blogs critiquing Rush Limbaugh’s bashing of Sandra Fluke. By now the story is familiar: Fluke sought to present at a congressional hearing testimony concerning the denial of health insurance coverage for birth control for women and the effects of this denial on women’s reproductive health. This testimony inspired Limbaugh to ask, “what does it say about the college co-ed who goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right. It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.” I won’t go into the other things Limbaugh stated, if for no other reason than repeating his words feels violent and in some way complicit.
Which brings me to why I claim Limbaugh as spiritual practice.
A few years ago at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, I had the honor of attending a People of Color retreat presided over by the venerable Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. While there, I participated in a ceremony through which I received the Five Wonderful Precepts (see below), characterized by Hanh as “love itself.” Thich Nhat Hanh read each precept, which I repeated, and then I vowed to make all of them real in my life through practice, observation, and study.
Well, the Fourth Precept went pretty much out the window last week once I heard Rush Limbaugh’s comments. For that precept, I repeated “Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering…” After hearing what Limbaugh said, I had no intention to speak in ways that could possibly bring joy and happiness to Rush Limbaugh (and his supporters) or to relieve him of his suffering.
So, I’m back to square one on that precept – which, by the way, means nothing if you cannot apply it at all to those whom you might consider your “enemies.” That’s when the real work of the precepts begins. Let me at least put this out in the universe, then: Rush Limbaugh, may you be safe and free from harm. May you be free from suffering. And to you as well, Sandra Fluke: may you be light of mind, of body and of spirit. May you be safe and free from harm.
While wrestling with the fact that I made a vow and yet managed to cuss Limbaugh with words I had to invent in order to get my rage across, Bob Marley kept singing in my head: “the biggest man you ever did see was once a baby.” This is true of Limbaugh, is it not? While the precept reminded me to practice nonviolence in all circumstances, Marley reminded me to remember that Limbaugh was not born this way, a fact that concentrated my mind and begged me to ask: what kind of world have we created that makes an adult Rush Limbaugh possible? What madness have we institutionalized, and how might we go about dismantling it brick by brick? Caught up by Rush Limbaugh’s hate speech, I forgot to see him as symptomatic of larger political and social arrangements that reify – and profit from – women’s subordination. The stuff, in other words, of which Rush Limbaugh is a predictable result. To bless him, therefore, is to refuse to get stuck at personality. It is to move on and ask the harder questions and act accordingly.
Which brings me to President Obama.
While his having become the nation’s first African American president is certainly cause for celebrating Barack Obama, his having “become the first president to claim the legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight or public accountability” (as the editors of The New York Times pointed out) is cause for our undertaking sustained, direct, nonviolent action against his administration. The war on terror from the very beginning has been an atrocious project, one that is “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” as Martin Luther King said of the Vietnam War. It continues to be atrocious under President Obama’s tenure. I say this with Love, but I also say this with a firm commitment to keep the First Precept: “Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”
I hope we will all make this vow and demand that our government do the same.
The Five Wonderful Precepts
- Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and to learn the ways of protecting the lives of people, animals and plants. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
- Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving-kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals and plants. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will do everything in my power to prevent others from human suffering of other species.
- Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate my responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
- Aware of suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to the suffering of others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or bring suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that can inspire self confidence, joy and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things I am not sure of . I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, even small.
- Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicants, or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain T.V. programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body and my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation, and for the transformation of society.
MARCH 21, 2012 7:06PM
The Spirit Murder of Trayvon Martin
Recounting the story of an African American civil rights worker who was stabbed thirty-nine times by his white assailant for racially-motivated reasons, law professor Patricia Williams writes: “I wondered for a long time what it was that would not die, what could not be killed by the fourth, fifth, or even tenth knife blow; what sort of thing would not die with the body but lived on in the mind of the murderer.” After some reflection, Williams writes, “I came to see this act as not merely body murder but as spirit murder,” that is, as a “disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard.” While “one form of spirit murder is racism,” she notes, other forms include “cultural obliteration, prostitution, abandonment of the elderly and homeless, and genocide.”
George Zimmerman did not stab Trayvon Martin thirty-nine times. Yet his act – stalking and then shooting Trayvon in the back, all in the name of self-defense – was most certainly an act of spirit murder.
How do I know? I’m sitting here looking at a photo of Trayvon and cannot help but see the beauty and possibility of my sixteen and seventeen year old nephews – still children in our culture, if I am not mistaken. Like Trayvon, they look like children in spite of the fact that they are approaching the magical age of eighteen when, voila!, a child somehow becomes an adult. Even my sixteen year old nephew, who is 6’4” and still growing, looks like a child – albeit a large and older one, but a child nonetheless. Both nephews act like older children often do: they laugh at dumb jokes, they walk and talk like children, they reason through issues in ways that are baffling as well as surprising, they’re wildly optimistic, they play. They remind me that I am getting old.
That George Zimmerman could not see what is, to me, quite obvious about Trayvon speaks volumes to what he did see while looking at an unarmed black male child who, from all accounts thus far, was aware of and was trying to get away from the grown man following him. Considering the myriad ways that adult males have victimized children, Trayvon must have been alarmed at first, and then terrified once he realized that a strange white man was trailing him. Looking at his picture, I am reminded of the photos of young black male children that I see pasted on the walls where I work. Missing. Probably abducted. Most likely dead.
What was it that Zimmerman saw, then, if he could not see a child? What did he so desperately need to kill when he stepped out of his car to stalk Trayvon – in spite of the 911 operator’s advice that he should stay put?
The most obvious answer – and one that has already been offered by so many who have followed this story – is that he saw what so many whites see when they look at black people (regardless of age, sex, or status): something “large, threatening, powerful, uncontrollable, ubiquitous, and supernatural” – to quote Patricia Williams. It is an image of black people through which whites have constructed themselves as victims and as endangered people. (That Zimmerman is a “white Hispanic” is of no matter, for this idea of black people, of blackness, looms large in the minds of Americans of all races, including – I am sorry to say – black people.) Trayvon the child was simply the black monster who “always gets away” and who always, regardless of age, poses a continuing threat to white peace, white communities, white families, white bodies. — As an aside, I am reminded of the routine of a white comedian I heard once who talked about how “cute” young black males are as babies, as infants, as little boys. And here’s his joke: they become “scary,” he said, when they become teenagers (white audience laughing. Have you ever noticed how utterly ideological humor is? I mean, the Little Rascal’s character Buckwheat can only be funny if young black boys and their natural hair and smiles are themselves considered a joke, a cosmic prank offered to entertain white people. But I digress).
When Zimmerman killed Trayvon, then, he not only killed his body, but also that dangerous blackness that “always gets away” and that will just not die.
But I would argue that when Zimmerman saw Trayvon, he also saw himself or, rather, the truth that to be white is always to be unsafe – not, however, because whites are victims of the very people (including children, no less) whose subordination they have secured through their political, economic, and penal institutions. Quiet as its kept, whites who are victims of violent crimes are, more often than not, victims of other whites (which makes sense given how rigid is racial segregation). No, to be white is to be unsafe because safety secured through the subordination of others is always precarious, if not simply an illusion – a lesson well-illustrated by the Arab Spring.
Which means (I’ll wager) that what Zimmerman needed to kill even more than the idea of blackness that he saw in the child Trayvon Martin is the knowledge that in order to be truly safe, he is required to surrender and undo the privileges of whiteness (to whatever degree he exercises, or can exercise, these privileges). He must create communities where gates and vigilantism are neither necessary nor desirable. He must see that “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” and that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” (Martin Luther King). That knowledge, however, proved too much to bear.
Consequently, until this surrender is embraced as the means to attain true peace and safety, then the Zimmermans of this country will continue to make it unsafe for us all.
MARCH 27, 2012 10:13PM
George Zimmerman is a Nice Guy
According to those who know him, George Zimmerman is really a nice guy. And not only is he nice, he is also one who apparently is (or once was) “very courteous, respectful of elders.” At least that is what George Hall told the press the other day. A former pastor who lived across the street from the Zimmerman family when it resided in Manassas, Virginia, Hall had been on the receiving end of George Zimmerman and his family’s courtesy and respect. “They were always helping me,” Hall recalled. “If I pulled up in the driveway with groceries, they’d help me carry things in.”
I don’t know about you, but I am sincerely glad (no tongue-in-cheek) that George Zimmerman is a nice guy. I think we can all agree that it is important to be nice. And I believe that he probably is nice. But as these stories start to trickle in about the niceness of George Zimmerman, I think it’s important to step back and ask ourselves what his niceness means, really, vis-à-vis his apparently racially-motivated murder of a black child. And just as critically, we should also ask why we are so often fed the “nice guy” narrative in moments such as these.
While it is possible that the story is offered to give us a deeper understanding of Zimmerman himself and of the tragedy that unfolded, I have my doubts. For it seems to me that the story of his niceness is actually serving as an occasion not only for constructing him as not racist and therefore as innocent, but also for suggesting that Trayvon Martin was not nice and that he probably deserved to be gunned down. Thus, the unspoken counternarrative goes something like this:
George Zimmerman is a nice guy. And because he’s nice, he is – as his friend Joe Oliver assured us – “not a racist” (“this is a guy,” Oliver explained, “who thought he was doing the right thing”). Consequently, the fact that Zimmerman considered Trayvon Martin suspicious, even without having had any basis for this belief; then followed Martin; then reported Martin to the police as suspicious and, while so doing, characterized Martin as one of “these [expletive]” that “always get away” – none of this could rationally be considered the product of racial animus.
Since Zimmerman is a nice guy who was trying to do the right thing, then he must have had good, nonracist reasons for following and then shooting Trayvon Martin (even though Martin was unarmed). More likely than not, Trayvon provoked Zimmerman; that is, he probably became aggressive and mean when George Zimmerman – for completely innocent reasons – followed and approached him. And given that he wore a hoodie while walking in a gated community, it is likely that Trayvon Martin was not, generally speaking, a nice person. In fact, rumor has it that he was suspended from school because he was in possession of marijuana residue while on school grounds. Considering the context, then, George Zimmerman clearly had no choice but to defend himself against this person, and the police were probably right to take him at his word when he stated that he was the real victim in this tragedy.
Such is the counternarrative now subtly making its way in the public sphere, one that makes clear the ways “niceness” is often evoked precisely to provide, for those who speak and act from racial animus, a cloak of respectability, legitimacy and, in the end, innocence. The “nice guy” story, in other words, protects from scrutiny and political as well as penal action a host of polite people who, through their words and deeds, are active agents of repression, violence, and hate. It also perpetuates the myth that niceness and racism (as well as other forms of violence) are diametrically opposed. She can’t be racist, I’ve heard again and again, because she is such a nice person! I mean, she goes to church every Sunday!
I am clear, however, that many of the Germans who supported the Nazi regime and subscribed to Jewish annihilation were nice, as were a vast majority of the Hutus who slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda. Someone loved Bull Connor and thought he was a great guy to have a beer with, even as he set his dogs upon the men, women, and children who marched for freedom in Alabama. And no doubt there is someone in Syria who can wax poetic about just how nice President Bashar al-Assad can be. Most people, I think it’s fair to say, are nice.
But history is cluttered with the victims of nice people, people from whom Love required so much more. And Love required more from George Zimmerman – certainly much more than mere acts of politeness and courtesy. The “heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong,” Dr. King wrote, and “nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” – which is, of course, what racism is. Niceness, in other words, that lacks any grounding in the recognition of another’s humanity, of our connection to each other, is just empty and soulless, and it ultimately gives us permission to act without conscience or accountability.
If his baseless stalking of Trayvon Martin is any indication of racial animus – and I believe that it is – then George Zimmerman’s “sincere ignorance” does not give him a pass, does not excuse what he did to that young boy, no matter how nice Zimmerman is. We must require much more from nice people like George Zimmerman – for Trayvon’s sake and, yes, for George’s own. And in so doing, we must remind ourselves, as difficult as it may be, to do so from a place of Love.
APRIL 3, 2012 10:06PM
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” for Children
On January 1, 2011, Florida’s House of Representatives unanimously passed the groundbreaking Child Abduction Prevention Act. “As abduction cases in our state and the nation continue to increase at alarming and unprecedented levels,” stated Representative Darryl Rouson who sponsored the law, “it has become apparent that the combative way to prevent this epidemic from spreading was to create a sweeping law that will aid the courts in protecting our children.”
Indeed, Florida had good reason to adopt the Act. In the year 2009, Florida ranked third (behind Texas and California) in missing children, and this year alone 280-plus children are reported missing. Every year, upwards of 800,000 children nationwide is reported missing. Many of these children are abducted, either by acquaintances or strangers. Most abductors are men (75%), most are below the age of 29 (67%), and some (32%) use a car to abduct a child. As of 2010, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported that a total of 187,564 African American children are missing.
It is in this context of missing and abducted children that we must also consider Trayvon Martin’s encounter with George Zimmerman.
Why? First of all, Trayvon had no idea why George Zimmerman was following him and had every reason to be afraid for his safety, for the circumstances presented themselves as a child endangerment/abduction issue (strange twenty-eight year-old man following him by car and then by foot). This being the case, the State of Florida, through its commitment (in Rouson’s words) to “help prevent our state’s children from experiencing the nightmare of child abduction,” has provided tips for exactly how a child who is in danger or believes that he is in danger should protect himself. That is to say, if a child discovers (as did Trayvon Martin) that he is being pursued by an adult stranger, then he should respond – the State of Florida counsels – in very particular ways. Specifically, not only should the child run if followed; but if “grabbed by someone” who is “trying to abduct” him, the child should “yell, scream, kick, scratch, bite, fall to the ground, do anything to draw attention from bystanders. Yell ‘This is not my mommy’ (or Daddy) and keep yelling.” In fact, “NEVER GIVE UP!” the State advises. “Keep fighting to get away.”
Such is the advice as well of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Teach your children to make a scene and every effort to get away by kicking, screaming, and resisting if anyone tries to grab them.”
Sounds to me like the child equivalent of “Stand Your Ground.”
Now, none of this is to claim that George Zimmerman intended to abduct and exploit Trayvon Martin or that Zimmerman even grabbed Trayvon during their encounter (though it is possible that he did, as it is also possible that Trayvon turned the tables). But it is to remind us of the vulnerability of children – especially of their vulnerability to adult violence – and thus to encourage us to place ourselves in Trayvon’s shoes at that moment when he realized that a strange grown man was following him (if you’ve ever been pursued by a stranger on the streets – whether as an adult or as a child – then you must know that Trayvon felt, at the very least, fear, if not terror. And given the State of Florida’s very public commitment to the problem of child abductions, it’s possible that Trayvon thought he might end up the victim of such a crime).
Yet somehow the subject of Trayvon Martin’s vulnerability as a child – and the fact that children are pursued and caught daily by adults who intend them harm – has not made its way into the conversations about this whole ordeal. This speaks volumes to the ways in which we value children, and most especially children of color. Apparently, it is difficult to consider such children vulnerable at all.
Was Trayvon Martin, then, supposed to discern that George Zimmerman was not among the class of men who abduct and exploit children? In spite of the State of Florida’s advice that a child who considers himself in danger “NEVER GIVE UP!” and “Keep fighting to get away,” are we really suggesting that Trayvon should have submitted when George Zimmerman approached? Should Trayvon have understood that Zimmerman’s pursuit was simply a moment of citizen law enforcement to which he should have acquiesced?
Would you want your children to reason this out while a strange man follows them in his car and then chases them on foot, gun in tow?
While the issues of self-defense and Stand Your Ground are on the table – which, it seems to me, encourages us to frame the issue in specifically adult terms (Zimmerman the adult vs. Trayvon the adult, both exercising their right of self-defense) – children and their safety has to be on the table as well. There is something wrong going on in Florida, such that the state has ranked third in missing children, and I fear that the Trayvon Martin case may be sending the message to children that they should not protect themselves when pursued by adults (while I would like to believe that children could protect themselves nonviolently, I understand that more likely than not this is not an option they can effectively exercise in most, if not all, circumstances). I fear as well that the case, at least as it has been framed thus far, is letting adults off the hook about the ways we have made this country a dangerous place for children – so dangerous, in fact, that they cannot safely go to the store to purchase a box of Skittles.
Let’s have that conversation.
APRIL 18, 2012 10:16PM
Anders Behring Breivik and our Indecent Death Penalty
For the crime of murder:
- Twenty-one years in prison.
- Execution or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
These are two startlingly different punishment regimes that are at play for two horrifying hate crimes. One was committed in Norway; the other in Oklahoma.
Norwegian citizen Anders Behring Breivik, who last July murdered 77 people in order to – in his words – defend “ethnic Norwegians” from multiculturalism, faces a maximum of 21 years of imprisonment if, after his trial in Oslo, the court determines that he is sane. Breivik himself has requested either acquittal or the death penalty, stating “I would not recognize twenty-one years of prison. It’s ridiculous.” Norway, however, abolished capital punishment in 1905. Thus, if after serving his sentence a court finds that Breivik no longer poses a threat to society, in 2033 he will walk away from prison a free man.
Jake England and Alvin Watts, who this month murdered three African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have been charged with first degree murder and malicious harassment (a charge in Oklahoma that is equivalent to a hate crime). Unlike Norway, Oklahoma embraces the death penalty – as is true for most states in this country – and it is this penalty that the District Attorney is widely expected to pursue. Thus, if England and Watts are found guilty, they face execution unless the jury that convicts has mercy and votes for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
The Norwegian system clearly assumes that a person who kills can be rehabilitated and thus reintegrated into community; the Oklahoma system assumes that a person who kills is utterly and hopelessly depraved. As such, that person should be forever banished from community.
The Norwegian system forgives; the Oklahoma (and other states’) system forever condemns. Indeed, capital punishment, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in “Love in Action,” is “society’s final assertion that it will not forgive” – a truth that applies equally to the punishment of life without parole.
As much as I share the distaste that many people have for the fact that coverage of the Norwegian murders has provided Breivik a forum from which to air his violent and radical white supremacist ideology, I cannot help but be pleased that in doing so, the coverage also provides an opportunity to expose as indecent our country’s embrace of the death penalty.
In judging whether punishment is “so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual” and thus a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, our Supreme Court has (to quote the Court itself) “affirmed the necessity of referring to ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” For these standards, the Court has often looked toward “other nations that share our Anglo-American heritage” and to “members of the Western European community.” While not dispositive of the Court’s final decisions in Eighth Amendment cases, “foreign and international law” have nevertheless been “consistently referred to…as relevant” to the Court’s determinations.
Measured against the Norwegian system, our country’s standards of decency on the issue of punishment seem not to have evolved much at all. Indeed, whether convicted and sentenced to death, or convicted and banished to prison for the rest of their lives, England and Watts will suffer a punishment that can only be viewed as cruel and unusual.
I would rather a system grounded in true forgiveness. Forgiveness, of course, “does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act,” as Dr. King wrote. “It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship…Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again.” Obviously such coming together is impossible to achieve through execution or banishment. Both would foreclose, for example, the opportunity for England and Watts, and the families as well as the community that they harmed, to reconcile.
Yes, what all of these men have done is atrocious and certainly deserves our just condemnation (I assume, until proven otherwise, that Breivik is sane). And I’ll be the first to tell you that I am truly tired of angry white people, tired of white supremacy in all of its manifestations, tired of white violence (of which the death penalty, by the way, has been a concrete expression).
But I am clear that the justice that will most likely be meted out to England and Watts, given the facts and the trajectory of the case, is not justice to which I can subscribe.
APRIL 24, 2012 8:25PM
Afraid of too much justice?
This is the beauty of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act: it represents the citizens’ refusal, when it comes to the death penalty, to give a pass to unconscious racism or to issue a “license to lie” (as Michael Boucai puts it) to perpetrators of racial discrimination.
Thus, if statistics show that prosecutors seek the death penalty for African Americans more often than they do for whites; or that prosecutors pursue the death penalty most often when the victim is white; or that prosecutors remove more African American potential jurors than white – if statistics show this (as they do for North Carolina), then a perpetrator who claims he did not intentionally discriminate doesn’t get a pass. Nor does a perpetrator who offers up race-neutral explanations for acts that are, at bottom, intentionally discriminatory. This is because the statistics tell a different story: whether unintended or intended but masked, racism has clearly reared its ugly head. It is this story that the Racial Justice Act permits judges to acknowledge and, yes, to act upon.
And act is precisely what Cumberland County Senior Resident Presiding Judge Gregory A. Weeks did in the case of Marcus Robinson. Weeks vacated Robinson’s death sentence on the basis of a statistical analysis of North Carolina’s capital punishment process, an analysis conducted by Michigan State University law school researchers. The researchers found that, at the time of Robinson’s trial, Cumberland County prosecutors (and prosecutors statewide) dismissed potential African American jurors twice as often as they dismissed whites.
Because the Racial Justice Act gives credence to statistics of racial disparity as evidence of racial discrimination and does not require proof of discriminatory intent, Judge Weeks was able to overturn Robinson’s death sentence. Race, Judge Weeks wrote, proved to be “a materially and statistically significant factor in the decision” by Cumberland County prosecutors “to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection.” And since the prosecutors couldn’t come up with good enough reasons to explain their practice, the judge was left to conclude that racism had reared its ugly head.
This outcome signifies just how powerfully North Carolinians have rejected U.S. Supreme Court reasoning on racial discrimination generally and discrimination in the context of capital punishment. Ever since 1976 when the Court decided Washington v. Davis (an employment discrimination case), those who have sought redress from the courts for racial discrimination (under the Equal Protection Clause) have had to prove the perpetrator’s discriminatory intent or purpose – to prove, in other words, that she was “conscious of her unfair treatment.” Thus, establishing disparate impact is rarely enough to prove that one has been the victim of racial discrimination.
Not only did this rule ultimately give “all of us an incentive not to confront or counteract our unconscious racism,” as Boucai argues in his essay “Caught in a Web of Ignorances: How Black Americans are Denied Equal Protection of the Laws”; but the rule also created “an incentive” for racists “to hide the consciously racist grounds for their decision-making” (in fact, the Court itself has rationalized this deception by letting discriminators off the hook once they provide presumably rational, race-neutral explanations for their practices). Thus, “by ignoring the reality of unconscious racism,” writes Boucai, “the intent requirement mandates the exact opposite – namely, an unwarranted presumption of race-neutrality.”
Yet the rule also legitimized the notion that in order for an act to be considered racist, it must be an obvious and overt act of animus. Thus, in his response to Judge Weeks’ decision, assistant district attorney Rob Thompson of Cumberland County angrily asserted that the Michigan researchers “do not have evidence of purposeful discrimination. They do not have some secret society of prosecutors maniacally plotting to remove people from juries. They do not have any of that because there is no such evidence. It doesn’t exist. They have numbers.”
Wow. What a standard! To prove that the prosecutors acted with discriminatory purpose, one would have to show, according to Robinson’s logic, that they were “maniacally plotting” and that they were members of “some secret society.” In other words, you’d have to be the victim of a crazy bunch of racist prosecutors who operate in some kind of cell structure in order for your experience of discrimination to be valid. If only racism worked that way and that way only!
But it doesn’t – a fact that North Carolina has chosen to look at squarely, honestly, and in direct opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of “willful ignorance,” jurisprudence that rejects the existence of unconscious racism and that has been, as a result, absolutely deadly for many capital defendants.
Take, for example, the Court’s 1987 decision McClesky v. Kemp. In this death penalty case, Warren McClesky provided ample evidence in the form of statistical analysis (the Baldus study) which demonstrated that racial “discrimination extend[ed] to every actor in the Georgia capital sentencing process.” Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that race was “a materially and statistically significant factor” in McClesky’s death sentence, the Court instead readily retreated into the world of willful ignorance erected by its intent standard. McClesky had not shown, the Court held, that prosecutors acted with discriminatory intent in his particular case (Warren McClesky was eventually executed in 1991).
Just as Rob Thompson had, in the face of damning evidence, professed his ignorance concerning Cumberland County prosecutors’ discriminatory practices, so, too, had the Court professed ignorance concerning Georgia’s racist sentencing process.
But it is clear that the Court must profess ignorance, not only because doing so enables the Court to justify, as Boucai argues, its almost insurmountable intent standard, but also because it enables the Court to avoid the very thing that it has apparently feared most: “too much justice.” When “taken to its logical conclusion,” Justice Powell wrote for the majority in McClesky v. Kemp, “McClesky’s claim [and others like his] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system…Thus, if we accepted McClesky’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we would soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalties.”
As if to uncover what appears to be the expression of unconscious racism in Justice Powell’s analysis – and, perhaps, in a plethora of capital punishment decisions that address defendants’ claims of racial discrimination – Justice Brennan in his dissent zeroed in unflinchingly on the gist of Justice Powell’s statement: it “seems to suggest,” Brennan wrote, “a fear of too much justice.”
Having adopted the Racial Justice Act, North Carolina clearly decided not to be bound by that fear. So to those who are promising to overturn this act in light of Judge Weeks’ decision, and to those who are incensed by the very existence of a Racial Justice Act, we need to put the question: What makes you afraid of too much justice?
MAY 1, 2012 9:17PM
Traveling in peace, traveling through White America
A few years ago my friends and I packed ourselves into a rather broken down VW bus to make our way to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. The line-up was fantastic: Sweet Honey in the Rock, for example, was going to be performing, as was a then-unknown singer and guitar player who would completely blow our minds (Tracy Chapman). Most of us – all African American women and one pre-teen – had never been to the festival and had never driven as far west as Michigan or as far north as northwestern Michigan, which is where the festival was being (and is) held. For a variety of reasons, we were looking forward to the trip, not the least of which is that we wanted to camp out and listen to music with a bunch of naked and semi-naked women from around the world, as well as to escape the heat, humidity, noisiness and grime that is Washington, D.C. in the late summer.
As we left the city, the landscape became greener, wider. It was nice to see farms and trees and cows – something other than apartment buildings and office buildings and traffic and lawyers and politicians. The sky, once we left Washington, seemed impossibly vast and really, really blue.
And of course, the further we traveled from D.C., the whiter were the people whom we encountered.
As was always the case when I traveled outside of the parameters of a city, I became wary, for lingering in the back of my mind was my parents’ admonition that I should “be careful” because “there are crazy people out there.” I understood them to mean that when I traveled outside of the city (or even through segregated white urban enclaves), I needed to watch out for white people (especially men) who (as my parents saw it, and too often for good reason) were likely to act and be crazy the farther away they lived from a sizeable city or from black people.
So, alongside the joy that I felt as my sisters and I made our way to Michigan sat a sometimes consuming worry, a feeling of unease that only dissipated when I spotted the occasional black or brown person in whatever small town we found ourselves in when we stopped for gas or food or the bathroom.
As we trekked further and finally up the state of Michigan, those black and brown faces became few and far between. And the worry? Well, it took up space in that cramped VW bus.
At some point we stopped for one final bathroom run in a small town that was approximately an hour or so outside of our destination. The town didn’t feel particularly friendly, but in truth it didn’t feel unfriendly, either. However, there were no black or brown people around, so we understood that the sooner we left, the better.
But the bus had a different agenda. After a few sputters and spurts, it seemed that it had finally broken down for good. Carla, who knew nothing about car maintenance (she lived most of her life in New York City) proceeded to tinker with it anyway, probably to calm her nerves. All of us, of course, were hot with anxiety, but played it as cool as we could and said nothing to suggest that we felt otherwise.
As we waited and wondered if Carla would somehow channel the spirit of some ancient car mechanic, a white “biker guy” pulled up behind us in his Harley. You know the type: handkerchief wrapped around his head, long hair, dark sunglasses, tattoos – the kind of white guy you imagine riding with Hell’s Angels and, well, the kind you can imagine dragging some black person tied to the back of a pickup truck. This was not a pleasant moment for us, so when he got off of his bike and started walking our way, we all wondered why the hell we left the safety and security of Chocolate City – in a vehicle plastered with “Free South Africa” bumper stickers, no less! – for an area as remote and as white as this.
Biker guy nodded his head at Carla as he approached. “I’m going to help you all if I can,” he said calmly, “‘cause I don’t agree with what goes on around here.” To say that we were shocked is an understatement (we were, in fact, rendered speechless). Without waiting for our response or our consent, biker guy went to work straightaway on the van and got it started in a matter of minutes.
When we finally found our voices, we couldn’t thank him enough. We also couldn’t drive out of that town fast enough, for we most certainly didn’t want to wait around to see exactly what went on around there.
It wasn’t until we got back on the road and a few miles out that we allowed ourselves to laugh, hysterically, not only about our fear and the danger that we faced, but also about what we assumed when we first saw the man who offered to us his help. Although we had expected him to be one of those crazy (white) people about whom all of our parents warned us, the folks we had to pay attention to were the respectable looking white folks who lived in that small town, the ones who filled up their minivans with groceries and children and who apparently had been committing acts that compelled this man – whom we completely misread – to help make us safe.
That was quite a few years ago, and although I am mindful of the existence of such white men as the one who assisted me and my friends – those who “don’t agree with what goes on around here” – I still have cause to be wary when I find myself venturing outside of urban spaces or through segregated white neighborhoods. Although The Scary Black Male looms large in the imagination of many white folk, the truth is that white violence, and particularly violence at the hands of white men, is an ever-present reality that touches the lives of African Americans in both systemic and intimate ways.
Thus, it’s not just the white male policemen in cities and elsewhere who pose a danger to black folk. Just attend a tea party rally or listen to talk radio and you’ll understand that the police are really only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll also understand that this particular danger has become even more pronounced since Obama took office (a fact to which the increase in hate groups attests). Yet it is rarely the subject of articles or talk shows or confessions, and even the George Zimmerman moment has yet to produce a serious dialogue about white male violence. Instead, we – or I should say, white folks– focus on The Scary Black Male, even if only to debunk the myth.
As a result, The Scary Black Male figures as a ubiquitous character, as one who apparently traverses any and all white communities and thus exists wherever white folk can be found (so powerful is this idea that even whites who live in highly segregated communities and who rarely, if ever, interact with black people nevertheless feel endangered by black men and boys). White men, on the other hand, figure as either victims of The Scary Black Male or as those whose violence constitutes righteous acts of protection through which (white) communities are made safe.
Now, I’m not encouraging the creation of (nor do I buy into) a Scary White Male counter-myth. And I certainly don’t walk around worried about every white male whom I encounter. I just would rather do away with The Scary Black Male myth altogether because, among other things, it constitutes a failure to address violence as it has evolved from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and colonialism and as it manifests in this “New Jim Crow” and neocolonial moment. Even more to the point: the myth represents a refusal to examine how this violence gets expressed in specifically gendered terms. After all, the truth of the matter is that part of the relief my friends and I felt in leaving Washington, D.C. for the Michigan Women’s Festival was that we were finally able to get some respite from the verbal and physical harassment to which we were constantly subjected in the segregated neighborhoods in which we lived, an experience that compelled me on more than one occasion to carry a walking stick when I ventured out (imagine my relief when I moved to Los Angeles and realized the safety that having to drive everywhere provided). And quiet as it’s kept, many white women who clutch their purses when they see an African American man approach go home to their “safe” white neighborhoods only to get accosted by white men who, because white, had not figured as men whom these women were bound to suspect.
I have to wonder just to what degree the violence of segregation shapes and determines experiences such as these, experiences I have been more prone to think of only in terms of gender (this is not to say that women are somehow innocent bystanders who, out of necessity, have to negotiate this violence. Indeed, many of us have been willingly complicit in creating and sustaining it, whether at the level of raising our sons and feeding them on hate or investing in Chevron. And certainly there are specific ways in which we express violence that is absolutely marked by how we are situated in the New Jim Crow landscape).
I do have faith that at some point not only will I, but indeed all of us, will be able to walk and travel wherever we please, and in true peace. But that can’t happen as long as we continue to treat white male violence as some kind of anomaly that is generally unnecessary to discuss or to critique. We can’t transform what we don’t talk about or what we choose to obfuscate. And we most certainly cannot heal.
MAY 10, 2012 9:19PM
Obama: “I evolved from religious bigotry”
It was a watershed moment when, in 1987, Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. Fairly fresh off the heels of his 1984 quest for the presidency, Jackson brought to the March what no other speaker could: the attention of the press and, with it, the attention of the public. For those of us who were crowded together on the Washington Mall on that cold October day, Jackson’s presence not only gave us hope for the future of gay and lesbian rights; it also brought relief that someone with such high profile and stature had stepped forward to take on as his mantle both our right to live as equal citizens under the law and our survival. After all, by 1987 AIDS had decimated so much of our community, a fact that drew little concern from our government representatives and downright hostility from a broad swath of American citizens. It was not uncommon to hear over the radio waves or on television shows calls to quarantine gays and lesbians, or to hear Christian leaders proclaim gleefully that the gay community had invited God’s wrath and thus deserved the painful death we suffered as a result of the virus.
So Jackson’s presence and affirmation of our lives mattered, especially to those of us who were dying –and especially, I would add, to those of us who are African American. Not just a few of us wept or choked back tears while listening to his speech, both because he was one of us and because of the hostility we regularly faced in our own communities. We understood that by stepping onto the speaker’s platform, Jackson had rebuked the status quo, both in American society generally and in African American communities in particular. In other words, he did what was right. And he did what was just.
So, too, did President Obama when he came out this morning in support of gay and lesbian marriage.
Yet, while his announcement is certainly a more momentous occasion than the one in 1987 because, unlike Jackson, Obama spoke as the President of the United States and thus his words have greater political import and consequences, to me it nevertheless seems a smaller moment somehow. Perhaps this is because Jackson’s presence at the 1987 March on Washington gives me pause to wonder about the meaning and measure of an “evolving” and evolved consciousness concerning gay and lesbian equality under the law.
I intentionally say “evolving consciousness” about equality and not about marriage because it cuts to the chase. Make no mistake about it: the issue is not, nor has it ever been, “redefining marriage,” though most assuredly the meaning of marriage has evolved over time and will continue to do so in spite of efforts to freeze it (as originalists attempt to do with the U.S. Constitution) in an oppressive past – and in spite of some folks’ raging desire to exclude us from its definition.
The issue is that under the law, some of us have been rendered second class citizens, a fact that is made possible in large part by an intolerable imposition of religious belief through the secular machinery of the state. Thus, the “right to marry” is our assertion of equal citizenship rights as well as of our rights under the First Amendment.
An “evolving” consciousness about gay and lesbian marriage, therefore, needs to be called out for what it was: a disbelief in equality under the law that was in large part driven by and grounded in religious bigotry.
How much more powerful, then, would the President’s evolved statements have been had he acknowledged outright this truth! Can you imagine his saying to Robin Roberts: “You know, I realized that I was being a religious bigot and that I was willing to deny equal rights to others because of my own beliefs. I was wrong then (when I said that I was “evolving” on the marriage issue) and it would be wrong now to continue on that path. Gays and lesbians should enjoy equal protection of the laws”?
Had he said something like this, not only would the President have put his finger on the injustice that we face; he would have also planted the seeds for creating real community because through his words he might have encouraged others to examine their own prejudices and willingness to be unjust.
But what we got, instead, was the President’s evolved “personal belief,” conveyed without any acknowledgment that his un-evolved, prior belief constituted complicity with discrimination and religious intolerance.
And yet I will settle for what he gave us nonetheless. Not because, however, of worries regarding the election or because I believe it is better than nothing or because it is an important “step” in securing gay and lesbian rights (it may very well not be). I’ll settle for it because, even though limited in its scope, his coming out in support of gay and lesbian marriage was the right and just and moral thing to do. To a significant degree, President Obama did rebuke the status quo; that is, he broke “loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as” an active partner “in the struggle for freedom,” to quote Dr. King. The President’s bold act, therefore, is something that we should all honor and celebrate before we move on to the serious business of securing our rights.
MAY 20, 2012 7:40PM
National Association for the Advancement of Gay Colored Folk
At its leadership retreat in Miami, Florida, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has passed a resolution in support of gay marriage. Noting that marriage has long been a civil right, the NAACP has declared its refusal to support any effort on the part of anti-marriage advocates to “codify discrimination or hatred into the law.”
This has been a long time coming, a moment that I wish Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and June Jordan and so many of my African American gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender ancestors could have witnessed. I think of my friends who died from AIDS back in the eighties and nineties and wish we were sitting at the table talking about this momentous occasion. But I bear witness for them all, as well as celebrate the NAACP’s continuing efforts to live up to and carry out its century-old mission.
No doubt there will be African American detractors who will wonder – while sitting next to an African American lesbian or gay man – what gay marriage has to do with the Advancement of Colored People. And no doubt there will be white gays and lesbians who will wonder – while sitting next to an African American lesbian or gay man – why it took so long for black people to support “our equal rights.”
That being the case, let me say something that is probably completely mind-boggling for people such as these: Gays and lesbians have always supported racial equality. And African Americans have always supported gay and lesbian rights.
How can I say this? Well, because African American gays and lesbians actually exist and, yes, our lives have been deeply affected by racism and homophobia. Consequently, we have always advocated for racial equality and gay and lesbian rights simultaneously. We’ve knocked on the doors of our Congresspeople, spoken up at black churches, rallied in the streets, confronted institutions like the NAACP, marched on Selma, marched on Washington, sat-in, boycotted, rioted…in other words, we have been – and continue to be – on the front line of the fight for justice and equality for all.
Much of the conversation about gay rights and African American rights has proceeded as if African American and gay and lesbian identities simply do not intersect. Indeed, many African American heterosexuals and white gays and lesbians share something in common: they pretend as if African American lesbians and gays (and other gays and lesbians of color, for that matter) do not exist. For these folks, all the blacks are heterosexual and all the gays are white. Consequently, black people are a heterosexual monolith opposed to gay rights, and gays are a white monolith indifferent to racial equality.
So, when I listened this past Friday to Tell Me More’s Barber Shop conversation on National Public Radio, I was not surprised that one of the African American participants, in discussing the gay marriage issue, wondered (cynically) whether the gay community has ever “reached out” to the African American community.
This is precisely the kind of thing you wonder when you don’t see or acknowledge the African American lesbians and gays sitting in your church or even in your living room.
And it was just last week that I read a white gay blogger’s rant about the lack of support in black communities for gay and lesbian rights.
This is precisely the kind of thing you rant about when you don’t see or acknowledge the African American lesbians and gays in your clubs or bars or at your political rallies or even in your bedrooms.
By failing to see or to acknowledge us, many African American heterosexuals and white gays and lesbians have been able to frame the gay rights/black rights issue as a white/black issue (which, by the way, the religious right loves and takes great advantage of in order to impose second-class citizenship on all gays and lesbians). By so doing, many African American heterosexuals and white homosexuals have left their own privileges – heterosexual privilege, white privilege – off of the table as fitting subjects of inquiry and critique. Not to mention political action.
The NAACP’s decision to support gay marriage presents a wonderful opportunity to put these privileges on the table so that we can actually re-imagine racial and sexual justice from the bottom up, i.e., from the perspective of those who have neither heterosexual or white privilege. Or male privilege. Or class privilege.
At least from my perspective, the failure to address and dismantle both heterosexual and white privilege is ultimately a failure to truly attain gay and lesbian equality. It is also, I would add, a failure to create the Beloved community for which we all strive.
(first two photos: Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde)
JUNE 3, 2012 9:54PM
Kill Lists, Drug Wars and Exporting American Racism
“The local focus on the War on Drugs,” writes Annalisa A. Jabaily in Ships Passing in the Night: Mapping the Trade Routes Between the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, “relies on the non-existence of the racial politics of the War on Terror. Race is considered to take place only in confined contexts such as the Equal Protection Clause. Yet many actions of the United States military make sense only in the unique context of American racism.”
Nothing illustrates this observation more clearly than President Obama’s “kill list” counter-terrorism strategy.
According to the New York Times, the President’s strategy includes a process by which he and his advisors count “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” To the President and his advisors, adopting this approach is a matter of “simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the War on Drugs, then you cannot help but hear in the President’s and his advisors’ “simple logic” the “high crime area” or “high crime neighborhood” or “high drug area” justification offered for how the War on Drugs has been conducted in cities across this country, particularly through law enforcements’ stop and frisk policies.
With the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court and its erosion of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures (an erosion undertaken because the Court had willingly transformed itself, as Justice Stevens wrote in his California v. Acevedo (1991) dissent, into “a loyal foot soldier” in the War on Drugs), law enforcement routinely evokes the “high crime area” justification for stopping and frisking whomever it feels is “probably up to no good.”
“High crime area,” however, is just a stand-in for race, a coded way of naming as a problem African Americans and, increasingly, Latinos. More specifically, it is a coded way of saying “black and Latino neighborhoods” and is thus a phrase by which law enforcement and policy makers – in the name of drug enforcement and crime control generally – criminalize all of the inhabitants living therein. Consequently, it has been primarily in black and brown neighborhoods where stop and frisk enforcement occurs – and most often with impunity.
“Area of known terrorist activity” and “strike zone” are just as surely stand-ins for race. These phrases are, undeniably, coded ways of naming as a problem all Muslim Arabs, and they are spoken to justify (in the name of the War on Terror) the deadly and not-so-accurate execution of drone attacks wherever Muslim Arabs (outside of this country and not in Europe) live – even if those killed prove to be, upon posthumous examination, simply a few homeboys who had been hanging out together.
How apropos it is, then, that the “kill list” story broke not long after the New York Times reported that a class action lawsuit has been filed against the New York Police Department for its stop and frisk policy!
According to the NYT, over the last few years the police have conducted an “enormous annual number of street stops.” And yet, only a “tiny percentage” of these stops “resulted in a gun seizure or an arrest.” In her decision to certify the class action, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Federal District Court noted that of the 2.8 million stops that the police conducted between 2004 and 2009, fifty percent of those stopped were African American, thirty percent were Latino, and ten percent were white. Last year alone, the NAACP writes, “police stopped and interrogated black men between the ages of 14 and 24 [for] a total of 168,126 times. The total population of black men and boys aged 14 through 24 in New York City is 158,406. That means the amount of times police stopped black men and boys in this age group exceeds the total number living in the city.”
Predictably, the New York City police listed “high crime area” as a “justification for a stop in approximately fifty-five percent of all recorded stops,” wrote Judge Scheindlin, and did so “regardless of whether the stop” took place “in a precinct or census tract with average, high, or low crime” (my emphasis). Moreover, as revealed in the records that the police themselves produced, the officers’ suspicions proved wrong “nearly nine times out of ten.”
Clearly, these “high crime area” stops have simply been a pretext for harassing, intimidating, criminalizing and controlling primarily black and brown men – a problem that occurs from New York to Arizona. And the characterization of African Americans and Latinos as inherently criminal provides justification for the very creation and existence of these law enforcement strategies. Thus, even if NYC officers were wrong nearly nine times out of ten, they were nevertheless right because black and brown men are criminals and therefore need to be stopped and frisked.
Between 2009 and 2011, “the United States carried out an estimated 20 airstrikes in Yemen, most in 2011. In addition to killing al Qaeda militants,” writes David Rohde in The Obama Doctrine, “the strikes killed dozens of civilians.” According to the New York Times, a drone strike conducted in Yemen on December 17, 2009 resulted not only in the death of the “intended target, but also neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents.”
In addressing the kill list strategy, one Obama Administration official offered that what bothers him about the strategy is “when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are” – which is another way of saying that, to the Administration, even if innocents are killed the drone strikes are right because all of these “guys…must all be militants.”
We should all be bothered by this.
It bothers me to witness, as I have often done in my community, the police roll up on/round up young Mexican and African American men (who had just been hanging around, laughing and flirting with the girls) and make them “assume the position.” Without any reasonable suspicion, the police pat these young men down, empty their pockets and, after making a few threatening remarks, drive away empty-handed or, occasionally, drive away with one young man in tow, a young man who had been searched way beyond the scope that the law allows.
The young men left behind don’t flirt anymore; indeed, they’re too angry, too hurt, too humiliated and probably too traumatized to do so. For many passersby, the event is so normal that it fails even to register as something that requires attention, let alone outrage.
The “War on Terror” is clearly “exporting a unique strand of American racism,” to quote Jabaily, a strand embodied in part by the racial logic underlying the War on Drugs. Racial profiling, guilt by association, indiscriminate and largely unchecked enforcement in designated problem “areas,” disregard of civil and human rights and human life itself – these are just some of the racial ties that bind the two Wars.
And both Wars (I know, I know: the War on Terror has been re-characterized as the War against al Qaeda; but isn’t that sort of like re-characterizing “civilian deaths” as “collateral damage”?) depend on language that obfuscates “racial violence and degradation” because it casts these Wars in colorblind terms. “High drug area” and “strike zone” camouflage the Wars’ racial imperative – which is, on the one hand, an unspoken desire to reaffirm, via the War on Drugs, “racial caste in America” through the criminalization and “mass incarceration” of black and brown men. “Mass incarceration,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement.”
The Wars’ racial imperative is also, on the other hand, a desire to undo a “new world order” perceived – at least according to what former President George H.W. Bush claimed in the late 1980s after the fall of the Soviet Union (a fall facilitated no less by the United States’ support of al Qaeda and the Taliban) – as an emerging “third world threat.”
The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are not, of course, “wholly the same.” But we do need to take note of the ways in which they inform each other and intersect, particularly with regards to race, for by “confining the debate on American racism to the War on Drugs,” we have bolstered “the presumption of United States colorblindness abroad. If racism occurs only within American borders, on American streets,” Jabaily writes, “then we are invited to assume that the United States really is colorblind in its international affairs.”
As details about the kill list counter-terrorism policy emerge, we will no doubt be invited to assume that it is a policy having nothing to do with American racism. But the Administration’s reliance on the racial codes of the War on Drugs reveals otherwise – a fact that demands from all of us who are engaged in taking “offensive action in behalf of justice” a broader international focus on dismantling American racism.
JUNE 7, 2012 9:45PM
Killing the “Kill List”
“This business of [killing people with drones], of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows…of sending men [and women] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Such were the words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1967 at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, a group committed to ending the war in Vietnam. At this meeting King declared that he could no longer be silent in the face of the war and its atrocities. “A time comes,” Kind said, “when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
Of course, I tweaked his speech a bit; instead of “killing people with drones,” King referred to “burning human beings with napalm” (I also added “women” in recognition of our soldiers). That my tweaking did no violence upon King’s overall critique speaks volumes to how far we still have to go or, perhaps more pointedly, how close this nation is — through this unending war in Afghanistan — to spiritual death.
The Nation magazine has issued a call to “kill the kill list.” I invite you to answer that call.
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
JUNE 20, 2012 10:32PM
Ceremony for Rodney (We will get along…)
“the welfare roles [sic] in california just got a little lighter, thanks for being dead rodney, get well soon ok hahahahahahah”
-Kevin, Palmdale, California
Kevin’s hateful comment about Rodney King is a fair representation of what you’ll find in the Comments sections that follow online news articles announcing the unexpected tragedy of King’s death. Like so many others, Kevin’s statement is at once a callous disregard for an individual life and a typically coded disparagement of black life (like many who embrace racism, he deploys “welfare” as a proxy for African Americans).
But I’m not going to dwell on this or offer some extended critique or close reading. For me, that would really be the easy way out of doing what the moment actually requires.
Let me state from the get-go that as I read various Comments sections, noting how filled they were with myriad cruel jokes and “analyses” about King’s life, about African American lives, I contemplated – and sometimes began to write – responses that were equally as hateful. Easily, my thoughts turned to retribution and violence.
I can go there and, too often, I do.
Yet when I do, it is always, without fail, a miserable experience. Weighed down by the awful feeling that I am surrounded by enemies whom I am not disinclined to harm – and with a brutality that quite frankly frightens me – my body predictably responds by becoming tense, agitated, and distressed. If I am lucky, I’ll manage not to work myself up into a migraine. And then, as if that is not enough self-flagellation, I sink into a hopelessness that often puts me in a nihilistic frame of mind.
Clearly, for me, embracing hate is not only a declaration of war against the Other; it is also a declaration of war against my Self.
If this is true for me, however, then I know that it must also be true for Kevin – even if he probably translates his suffering as pleasure and glee. But to hate is to suffer, for underneath it all is a fear and sense of smallness that is both crippling and unbearable.
With this in mind – and from my belief that, because “every loving thought is true,” everything else “is an appeal for [compassion], healing and help, regardless of the form it takes” – I offer this ceremony to Kevin and others like him (some of whom I quote below). Of course, because I am Kevin and thus often stand as one of the others, I offer this ceremony to myself as well:
“Rodney King was nothing but a druggie. He drove over 80 miles per hour through a residential area possibly killing many innocent people [sic]. King was nothing but a useless piece of trash who got what he deserved. The world is a better place without him & it is good that he is gone. Good…”
-Frank, Troy, Michigan
May you, Frank, and may all of us be light in mind, body, and spirit. May we be safe and free from harm. May we be free from suffering.
When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself. (Course in Miracles)
“We are sorry, black people, your race-card has expired. But haven’t you always dreamed of moving back? If so please contact the: “Richard Pryor Back to Africa Movement” Call our operators RIGHT NOW for immediate Free First Class reservations!”
-Stateless Infidel, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
May you, Stateless, and may all of us be free from pain and sorrow.
May we care about each other’s pain.
May we find peace.
We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
“Does this mean we’ll have a Rodney King Blvd in every ghetto moving forward?”
May your happiness and good fortune, Winning, continue.
May happiness and good fortune continue for us all.
May we rejoice in each other’s happiness.
May we feel contented and pleased.
May we experience prosperity and may that prosperity multiply without bounds.
Whatever put us here, we are all one. We say “I” or “you” so we can communicate, but…there is no “I,” there is no difference between “I” and “you.” I am you, you are me; there is only that. (Shaykhyassir Chadly)
“Beatings are not criminal activity, I didn’t say it.”
May you, Tim, and may all of us have bodily happiness.
May we all have mental happiness.
May we all know the ease of well-being.
Once we recognize that we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. (Audre Lorde)
“life aint easy when you black and greasy”
By your life, RM, and by our lives, be we spirit
By our hearts, be we women
By our eyes, be we open
By our hands, be we whole
I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy…but anywhere is the center of the world. (Black Elk)
“If we truly loved ourselves,” the Buddha taught, “we would not harm another.” I therefore send this blessing out to all four corners of the Universe that it might touch and heal all sentient beings and help us to truly love ourselves – and then to love each other as we love ourselves.
And so it is.
JULY 4, 2012 4:00PM
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”
…was the question that Frederick Douglass posed on July 5, 1852 in an address he delivered in Rochester, New York before his “fellow citizens” who were celebrating the nation’s day of Independence.
“I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
It is upon the legacy of slavery (and, its extension, Jim Crow) that the tea partiers and radical right have drawn upon for sustenance in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. “This is the greatest destruction of individual liberty since Dred Scott,” Ben Shapiro tweeted to great applause. “This is the end of America as we know it. No exaggeration.” According to Richard Viguerie, the Court had decided to join the “infamous courts of the past” that decided Dred Scott v. Sanford as well as Plessy v. Ferguson.
The Dred Scott decision, of course, was the ruling in which the Supreme Court declared that slaves and their descendants had no rights under the U.S. Constitution. Having deemed blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations,” the Court held that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (Not often noted about the Dred Scott decision is that it was one in which the Court also reified whiteness as a property interest that it would both recognize and uphold).
Plessy v. Ferguson, on the other hand, put in place the “separate but equal” doctrine that institutionalized Jim Crow, the effects of which are still part of the lived experience of American citizens.
The tea partiers and radical right cloak themselves as victims of these terrible legacies, i.e., as those most oppressed by them, and at least one has gone so far as to imply that he is a runaway slave who needs to make his escape north to freedom. “God literally fuck this,” wrote Jacqua Flocka. “I’m moving to Canada.”
And yet their desire to render unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act, their attempts in Florida and elsewhere to purge registered voters of color, their countless racist attacks on the President, etc., etc., make abundantly clear that it is precisely these legacies that they wish to perpetuate. “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth,’ and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another,” Douglass argued, “yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own.”
Of course, the tea partiers and the radical right are victims of these legacies, but only in the peculiar ways that benefactors are victims. As James Baldwin would have observed, it is clear that “they are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and
until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but…people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of [many] white Americans, is the loss of their identity.
It is the very possibility of this loss that produces such hysteria as we have seen following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Affordable Act decision. The calls to “WAR” (Ben Howe), the question of whether “Armed Rebellion” is “Now Justified” (Matthew Davis), the comparison of the decision to “the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks” (Congressman Mike Pence) – all of these assertions bespeaks a fear that America as “we” know it, and thus “our” identities as “we” know them, has come to an end.
I am certain that the “we” to whom Shapiro referred does not include me or my understanding of the meaning of America.
My father, who was a popular radio talk show host in Washington, D.C., would often, for his Independence Day program, recite Douglass’ address. He did this because he knew how important it is to understand history so that we may all reconcile ourselves to it and thus be released from it. And so it is with this understanding that I continue my father’s legacy and offer you the words Frederick Douglass spoke – as a runaway slave in every sense of the term – 160 years ago almost to the day.
“Fellow-citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie….Notwithstanding, [however,] the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope….The fiat of the Almighty, ‘Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”
Happy Interdependence Day.
AUGUST 12, 2012 9:10PM
White Supremacy and the “Texecution” of Marvin Wilson
This past week’s conversations about white supremacy, which were inspired by Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage last Sunday at a Sikh temple in Oak Tree, Wisconsin, would not be complete without some discussion about Marvin Wilson – a “mentally retarded” African American man put to death last week by the state of Texecution (Texas, that is). According to Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA, Wilson “had the mental capacity of a first grader” and could “barely match his socks.”
Although the discussions on this painful event have focused (and rightly so) on the indecently low threshold by which Texas determines whether or not someone is mentally disabled enough to be given a pass on lethal injection (Texecution has apparently adopted a standard that in effect amounts to a “What Would Texans Do?” inquiry), discussions of Marvin Wilson’s execution could have just as easily turned on the issue of racism. After all, Texas’ capital punishment apparatus constitutes nothing less than white supremacy writ large.
Before I go any further, let me first acknowledge Jerry Williams, the man whom Marvin Wilson murdered, and offer blessings and peace to Williams’ family, friends, and community. The truth is that Wilson’s crime caused terrible pain and suffering, and I never want to lose sight of that fact.
Yet, here is another awful truth:
Since 1976, Texas has carried out close to 500 executions, and “you can count on one hand,” writes University of Houston law professor David R. Dow, “the number of those executions that involved a white murderer and a black victim.” Indeed, in Harris County Texas – which, according to professor Scott Phillips, is “arguably the capital of capital punishment” – death “is more likely to be imposed against black defendants than white defendants, and death is more likely to be imposed on behalf of white victims than black victims.” It is probably safe to say that such racial disparities mark the criminal justice system in other counties throughout Texas, including in Jefferson County, where Wilson committed his terrible crime and where he was tried.
Racial discrimination, in fact, seems to have been at issue in Wilson’s particular case. On appeal, he argued (among other things) that the prosecutor used peremptory challenges “to eliminate black veniremen but accepted non-black veniremen who possessed the same characteristics as the eliminated blacks.” The prosecutor, in other words, made sure that no black jurors would hear Wilson’s case.
Wilson lost the argument, but that fact should not give us much comfort. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it supremely easy for prosecutors to eliminate black jurors: they simply have to provide race-neutral justifications for their decisions. That’s a pretty simple thing to do. Just say that you don’t like the way a potential African American juror crossed his legs when he answered your question and you’re off the hook.
Racist/discriminatory intent has to be obvious in order for intent to be recognized by law as racist — obvious, for example, in a Wade Michael Page kind of way.
It is easier – or, perhaps, safer – to talk about and confront white supremacy when it comes in the guise of violent, gun-toting white radical extremists than when it comes in the form of institutional practices. Or in the form of a political party’s attempt to purge voter rolls. Or when it looks like Wells Fargo lending practices. Page was a white supremacist! we proclaim. Look at his tattoos! Listen to his music! (By the way, if I were to say “Michele Bachmann is a white supremacist! Look at her Muslim witch hunt! Listen to her claims about slavery!” – if I were to say that, many people would come running to her rescue, a fact which I am convinced might have much to do with how we think about white supremacy and class).
In spite of the fact that Wells Fargo just recently settled a racial discrimination claim with the Department of Justice for $175 million, many would wince at my suggestion that the company proved itself to be a white supremacist institution. Not a word about white supremacy was spoken upon news of the case or settlement. And certainly the issue has not come up in the context of the housing crisis or as an issue that drove the housing crisis. Racism, yes; white supremacy, no.
Institutionalized white supremacy is just as deadly as white supremacy embodied in someone like Wade Michael Page – a fact to which our death penalties attest (indeed, it seems that as long as police, prosecutors, judges and jurors don’t come to court bearing racist tattoos or iPhones loaded with white power rock-and-roll, they can effect (through the machinery of the state) race-motivated killings. With impunity. And, under the guise of race-neutrality and institutional legitimacy).
So why are we having the easier discussion about white supremacy? Surely it cannot be because it makes us safe. It does not (there are more Wade Michael Pages to come).
I suspect that the easier discussion, i.e., the one focused almost exclusively on the singular actions of individuals, allows us to forget, conveniently, that perpetrators like Page are dangerous people who have nevertheless been harmed by their conscious, intentional embrace of a philosophy that many of our revered institutions uphold, legitimize and reproduce, say, in the form of a Wade Michael Page. In other words, talking about and in fact othering those who would carry a gun, mark their bodies with symbols of hate, kill others, and then turn the gun on themselves, allows us to sidestep the difficult issue of the need to transform our institutions – some of which employ us, baptize us, and generally serve to our benefit. This includes, of course, our criminal justice system.
It is also true, I suspect, that the easier discussion prevents us from facing white supremacy in our own lives as well as from facing the white supremacist in our own consciousness. Moreover, by not acknowledging that we all harbor hate (I cannot begin to tell you how many people I have, in my vivid imagination, killed over and over again), we will fail to do the necessary and seemingly impossible work of extending our compassion to the Wade Michael Pages around us so that we might end the cycle of reinventing violent communities and the institutions that reify them.
The senseless killing of our Sikh brothers and sisters, as well as so many unnamed others, clearly requires from us nothing less than a radically different, compassionate, and honest politics and critique.
I offer blessings and peace to Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Brian Murphy. I offer blessings and peace to your families, friends, and community.
May you, Wade Michael Page and Marvin Wilson, be free from suffering. May your families, friends, and communities be free from suffering.
May we all be free from hate.
AUGUST 27, 2012 11:51PM
Dr. King and the “paralysis of gullibility”
The anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is upon us, and as often happens on the anniversary of this march, the media treat us to a replay of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. For me, the speech never fails to inspire hope, so I never tire of hearing it every year. Considering the political landscape, it’s probably a good year to hear it again.
And yet it is perhaps more apropos in this moment – a time when it seems that many in this country are intent on wielding religion as a weapon and as a means to close off meaningful discussion about the direction that this country is taking – that we turn our attention instead to King’s “Love in Action.” It is a sermon that King wrote while sitting, as he often did, in a Georgia jail. Using as his point of departure Jesus’ crucifixion – “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” – King drives home in his sermon the dangers and tragedies wrought by “human blindness,” which he defines as human kind’s failure to live from a place of “enlightenment” and “intelligence.”
As King saw it, “human blindness” and “sincere ignorance” guided the murderers of Socrates; the “Christians who engaged in infamous persecutions and shameful inquisitions”; the “churchmen who felt that they had an edict from God to withstand the progress of science”; the men and women who embraced and profited from both slavery and Jim Crow, as well as the “elaborate theories of racial superiority” by which these systems were rationalized. Human blindness and ignorance guided those who believed that “war is the answer to the problems of the world.” And of course, for King, blindness and ignorance guided those who crucified Christ. With these as examples, it is clear – King argued – that “nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Considering the Muslim witch hunts perpetrated by many of our politicians, the unending debates about teaching creationism in public schools, the assault on voting rights, and the continued investment in war without end, King could have been preaching his sermon to us today.
Never one to shy away from criticizing his brethren, King eventually directed his critique at “the church” itself.
Although “the chief moral guardian of the community” charged with reminding “men that devoid of intelligence, goodness and conscientiousness will become brutal forces leading to shameful crucifixions,” the church, King argued, has too often fallen short of its calling. “Must we not admit,” he wrote, “that the church has often overlooked this moral demand for enlightenment? At times it has talked as though ignorance was a virtue and intelligence a crime. Through its obscurantism, closed mindedness, and obstinacy to new truth, the church has often unconsciously encouraged its worshipers to look askance upon intelligence.”
What King could have said, but did not, is that the “worshipers” themselves – at least the ones who have supported churches and, more broadly, religious institutions to which King’s criticism applies – have at times not only failed to demand enlightenment; they have also served as the church’s collaborators, often by simply behaving, well, like flock. Dr. King could have easily turned his attention on yet another passage in the Bible as a means to address this issue. I’m thinking specifically of the one in which Jesus curses the fig tree. It reads:
“And on the morrow, when they had come out of Bethany, he hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said unto it, ‘No man [will] eat fruit from you from now on — forever.’ And his disciples heard it . . .And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance said unto him, ‘Rabbi, behold, the fig tree that you cursed is withered away.’”
Although often interpreted as yet another example of Jesus’ ability to perform miracles or as another lesson about the fate of the wicked, for me it raises questions about the disciples’ silence or quiescence in the face of their revered leader’s misguided exercise of power.
Assuming that the fig tree had in fact withered away because Jesus cursed it, the passage has to make you wonder: why didn’t the disciples challenge Jesus on what was, at bottom, a violent and selfish act? Why didn’t someone pull Jesus by his robe and ask, “do you really want to act like that? Had you truly been your better self?” Why didn’t anyone point out to him that he had misused his power? Who stood up to remind him of his teachings on love and to ask how they could be reconciled with killing the fig tree? And why didn’t the disciples insist on some rules of behavior as a precondition for proceeding with him any further?
Clearly, someone should have spoken up, even in the face of danger. For it is truly a moral and spiritual obligation – and a demonstration of intelligence – to speak truth to power. By not doing so, we deny our own.
“Worshipers” collaborate as well by willingly wearing blinders. To be blunt, a deadly ignorance pervades too many faith communities, ignorance that is attributable, in part, to their baffling refusal to read sacred texts critically or to exercise any curiosity (beyond reading, if at all, the next chapter or verse) about the texts upon which they base their lives.
Treating sacred texts as if sealed off from and untouched by the particular histories, cultures and ideologies out of which they were produced, worshipers protect themselves from the possibility that they may just have to change their minds and believe differently. Or not believe at all.
The result of such investment in not knowing has been, on the one hand, the creation of communities marked by “obscurantism, closed mindedness, and obstinacy to new truth,” as well as by a tyranny of interpretation that has, in troubling ways, spilled into the public domain and has come to overdetermine public policy. Not to mention party platforms. On the other hand, the result is that such communities have elevated to power people for whom “blindness” and ignorance are badges of authenticity.
Is not the whole Todd Akin controversy a testament to this trajectory?
Might the sincere ignorance that Akin expressed concerning women’s bodies signify a broader and deeper resistance on his part to the intelligent tasks of investigation, questioning and critique – resistance that perhaps defines his theology as well? Akin’s claims about women’s bodies were most certainly statements of faith, and faith in a “science” that supports his religious convictions. Given that so many in his community have pledged their continued support of his candidacy because he is “a man of faith,” then can we not level the same criticism at them as well? And are we willing to see such resistance to knowledge elevated to the level of public policy?
Nothing in the world, to paraphrase King, could be more dangerous.
Forty-nine years ago King offered to the nation and the world a hopeful dream. Yet we should not forget the nightmare that he also envisioned, one wrought by “the stagnation of closed mindedness and the paralysis of gullibility.” If “American democracy gradually disintegrates,” King warned, “it will be due as much to a lack of insight as to a lack of commitment to right.”
AUGUST 30, 2012 4:02PM
Ryan, Republicans, and Strategic Lying
“‘Lies,’” writes Steve M. in his No More Mr. Nice Guy Blog, is “too weak a word for some of the things Ryan said [in his speech at the Republican National Convention]. We need a stronger word to describe the ability to look you in the eye — look America in the eye — and argue the exact opposite of your most deeply held beliefs, and do so in such a sincere-seeming way that it’s not even clear you actually grasp your own dishonesty.”
What makes the word “lies” weak, I believe, is that it only names the nature of what Paul Ryan and, for that matter, other speakers have been offering as fact from the pulpit of the Republican National Convention. Yes, Ryan lied. Egregiously (and how he reconciles lying with his religious professions is beyond my comprehension).
But it’s not the fact that he lied that is most problematic. It’s the fact that lying is clearly the Republican’s election strategy, the means by which the party seeks to recapture power. And let’s just be candid: it is a strategy not terribly different from what Adolf Hitler espoused in Mein Kampf. “I use emotion for the many and reason for the few,” Hitler wrote. “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell – and hell, heaven….The greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed.”
By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, the Republicans hope to make people believe:
- Voting fraud is rampant.
- The economic meltdown started on Obama’s watch.
- Millions of dollars were cut from Medicare to fund “Obama” care.
- Romney Care and Obama Care are nothing alike.
- President Obama has gutted work requirements in welfare programs.
- Giving further tax breaks to the rich will spur the economy.
- Our individual rights and economic interests are protected when we prioritize corporate prerogatives and expand corporate power.
- The interests of the local restaurant owner or mom and pop grocery store are furthered when companies like Chevron and Apple, or large banking establishments like Bank of America, are left unfettered by “regulations on businesses.”
- Reproductive rights impinge on religious freedom.
- Economic growth = tax cuts + spending cuts.
That lying constitutes the Republican Party’s strategy necessarily speaks volumes to how they’ll address the critical issues that this country is facing. Lies will be the basis for gutting entitlement programs upon which so many (including Republicans) depend. Lies will be the basis for whatever fixes to the economy the Republicans intend to impose (we’re still waiting for the details). Lies will be the basis for health care policy. And lies will most assuredly be the basis for how we address international issues and challenges.
Lying as strategy, however, also speaks volumes to how frightening change is to so many people within the Republican fold, for it betrays a singular refusal to see things as they are. But the country has changed, and the “comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged,” as Dr. King once wrote, “cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.” Instead of asking people, through lies, to reject change, the Republicans should be showing them how to embrace it. For all of our sakes.
But that is not what is happening today.
While we may, as Steve M. suggests, “need a stronger word than ‘lies’ for what the Republicans were spewing last night,” we would do well to address the kind of work that the lies are being employed to accomplish. For if the party can, with Mein Kampf effectiveness, make people believe the lies, then their policies will be the Truth that we’ll be stuck with for a very long time.
SEPTEMBER 3, 2012 11:25PM
On Grandfathers and Jim Crow
This is the story that sticks with me the most: my grandfather, who worked in a Pennsylvania steel mill – in a town not far from where Rick Santorum’s grandfather worked the coal mines –was so good at his job that he was charged with training one white man after another to be his boss.
Like many African Americans during the early 20th century, my grandfather migrated north to escape the hopelessness and brutality of Jim Crow Georgia. In search of better opportunity and some measure of freedom from white violence, he found that while certainly less brutal, America’s racial caste system was in full force in the urban north, circumscribing not only job opportunities, but also the places where he could eat, live, and educate his children. Here, the American dream was just as elusive because just as white.
Sure, my grandfather obtained what was by any standard of southern measure a good job. Working the steel mill was better than sharecropping any day of the week. But rest assured, it was a good black job that he held at the steel mill, a fact to which his experience of having to train his future white bosses attests.
I tell you about my grandfather because it never ceases to amaze me when, in telling stories of their humble American beginnings, the privileged — as we saw on full display at the Republican National Convention — manage to evade the telling of Jim Crow and the broader racial caste system that existed in this country back in “grandfather’s day.” This omission makes sense, of course, because telling the Jim Crow story means acknowledging how American Grandpa, and ultimately his progeny, benefitted from that system.
This is not to take away from the hard labor that American Grandpa put in, day in and day out, to feed his family and to make for them a better life. It is simply to acknowledge that American Grandpa was spared having to compete with the entire labor pool for those difficult, coveted jobs. His moving up, his pulling himself up by his bootstraps, was enabled in part by the fact that others were kept in their place – often with the threat that they would be strapped up and hung from trees should they dare attempt to make real the American dream for themselves and their families.
I don’t know what kind of success those white men whom my grandfather trained experienced as they worked their way up, and perhaps out, of the steel mill where my grandfather labored. They certainly made more money than my grandfather, and perhaps as a result they were better able to feed and clothe their families. I imagine that they were able to save a little more money, and maybe they saved enough to send their kids to college or to buy a house in a new suburb or to buy a brand new car. I assume that some of them may have even become successful businessmen or politicians who would tell their children that they, too, could live and embody the American dream if they just worked hard enough. And maybe these men that my grandfather trained had enough left over to leave an inheritance for their children and grandchildren.
My grandfather was, in my mind, a success. He raised a strong, proud family. And he succeeded not because of racial caste, but in spite of it. What a difference that makes. And what a different American story that narrates.
NOVEMBER 19, 2012 10:32PM
My dear Republicans of color…
As your kin-folk, we thought it would be quite un-family-like of us if we did not, at this post-election moment, give you a head’s up about what you should expect for the foreseeable future: your Party’s plan to use you to lure into its fold your brothers and sisters who have rejected its platform – all 90+% (African American) and 70+% (Latino American and Asian American) of us – is destined for failure.
From the outset, we do want you to know that we are of course proud of what some of you have accomplished in the face of our countrymen’s persistent racism and sexism – Marco Rubio: Senator from Florida! Condi Rice: United States Secretary of State! Bobby Jindal: Governor of Louisiana! Herman Cain: Successful Businessman! What marvelous narratives of triumph over injustice!
Yet, we cannot in good conscience ignore or Etch-A-Sketch the history of your resounding silence in the face of (or outright cooperation with) the racism and sexism expressed by your Party’s leadership and spokespeople – silence that we know ultimately provides no protection from the forces of hate.
As a consequence of this truth, we find ourselves having to ask of you answers to questions that you might find difficult, if not unfair. But we mean no unkindness. Nevertheless, we must know: Where were you when, during the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich declared President Obama the “food stamp President,” a racially-coded phrase by which Gingrich sought to establish his bona fides with the most racist elements of your Party? And what did you have to say when it was clear that his remarks were received with such pleasure and glee at the debates in South Carolina? What critique did you offer when Mitt Romney championed self-deportation as a solution to immigration (we know you supported this, Senator Rubio) – a cold-hearted policy that could not truly serve our vulnerable brothers and sisters? Where was your dissent in the face of Pete Hoekstra’s racist, anti-Chinese Super Bowl political ad featuring an Asian woman speaking “broken” English, or Rush Limbaugh’s slurs against Sandra Fluke? Which one of you stepped up strong to confront Michele Bachman’s McCarthy-ite witch hunt of our Muslim brothers and sisters?
Not once during the primary season – or, for that matter, during the past four years – have you raised your voices to object to the virulent racist and sexist assaults launched by the very people with whom you have politically and personally aligned yourself.
And not once did you stand up to the hate that your cohorts continued to espouse after you all chose Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as your candidates.
Who among you, for example, saw fit to speak out against Todd Akin’s morally repugnant rape comments or Sarah Palin’s racially-coded claim that President Obama shucked and jived on the question of Libya or John Sununu’s claim that President Obama is “lazy” and that General Colin Powell endorsed the president because of race or Donald Trump’s calls for President Obama’s academic records or the efforts by birthers to delegitimize our country’s first African American president or Mitt Romney’s disparagement of 47% of the American electorate or Paul Ryan’s sneering disregard of “urban” voters?
Who among you championed the right to vote – denied in the not-so-distant past to our grandmothers and grandfathers – against your Party’s voter suppression efforts?
Have any of you at any time called for your Party to disavow the torrent of hate that regularly spews from such Republican luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and his ilk? Have you disavowed them on your own, and publicly?
And at precisely what point will you decide that your Party’s Southern Strategy is not only ethically bankrupt, but also a racist and therefore immoral electoral game that purchases nothing less than your noncooperation with the GOP agenda?
Sadly, the examples I have given above are only the tip of your Party’s iceberg of offensive comments and, by extension, policies, as they are also a small sampling of your troubling, baffling acquiescence.
From the stories that some of you have delighted in telling, and that we have ourselves relished in hearing, we not only know that you were raised better; we know that you know better. For what we have in common is our communities’ legacy of resistance to injustice and oppression, and from that legacy we understand that it is, in Dr. King’s words, “a moral obligation to refuse to cooperate with evil.”
But it is not just your failure to speak up that dooms you and your Party’s shallow formula for capturing the imagination of the emerging “demographic,” i.e., showcasing the Party through your black and brown bodies.
It is also the fact that we are completely at a loss about what policy difference you actually make.
Case in point, Senator Rubio: instead of heading to Arizona the first thing after the elections, to the state where our brothers and sisters are facing the reality of disenfranchisement and where your support for their right to have their vote counted would not only be welcome, but would also signal an important policy shift as well as a shift in moral consciousness, you instead chose to go to Iowa.
While there, you both defended Mitt Romney’s post-election “gifts” comments and, quite to our astonishment, reiterated your endorsement of Romney as president. “Obviously he’s coming off his election,” you explained. “He was talking to his donors, but you know, I think we’re all gonna move on and we’re gonna move forward, and I hope Mitt will stay involved. I thought he was a great candidate, would have made a great president, and I hope he stays involved in our party.”
What policy difference do you make?
And while you, Governor Jindal, responded aggressively to Mitt Romney’s gifts comments – “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party. You know what I mean by that. Certainly, we need to stop making stupid comments” – your diagnosis of the Party’s problem as an issue of making stupid statements hardly constitutes a policy critique. Indeed, while you could have called out and exposed outright the underlying racism and sexism not only of Romney’s comments, but of your Party’s comments generally, you instead chose to play it safe. Specifically, you used the word “stupid” to characterize the comments. That doing so necessarily obfuscates the insidiousness of your Party’s agenda is telling and of course begs the question: What policy difference do you make?
You see, you and your Party will actually need to forward a social justice agenda that speaks to the real needs and aspirations of the communities from which you came (here’s a post-election diagnosis you may not have considered: we thoughtfully assessed – against the requirements of social justice – your Party’s platform, agenda, and candidates, and concluded that yours was not a Party we were bound to respect). But given how steeped your Party is in serving the haves at the expense of the have-nots, and making racism the very meaning and purpose of electoral politics, such a transformation, we realize, is unlikely to occur.
And, of course, given that you’ve shown neither the courage nor the conviction to assert an unwillingness to cooperate with your Party’s unjust and hateful policies and practices, it is simply fantasy to imagine that we will follow you over the racial cliff that is, in the end, your chosen party.
We do not know, quite frankly, what a conservative politics steeped in social justice could look like, but it is our hope that you will find your voices and your courage to create and articulate such a politics – if for no other reason than that the well-being of our country is at stake here. If the past four years tells us anything, it is that “we can no longer afford,” as Dr. King noted, “to worship the god of hate.” That god is tearing this country apart.