Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney Lopez

When I heard Bill Moyers' two part interview with Ian Haney Lopez, I knew intuitively that what he was saying was true. This book by Lopez not only confirmed that intuition but added depth and detail to my understanding of the way racism has become endemic to politics in the U.S. Simply put, Lopez's thesis is that since the early 1960's conservative politicians in the Republican party and the Southern wing of the Democratic party (when Democrats had a majority in the South) have used racial code words and images to invoke race-based fear and tension in White voters to garner votes. In response liberals (largely Democrats) have shied away from talking specifically about race for fear of alienating white voters, and instead have adopted the language of post-racialism, which says we seek "universal" solutions to the nation's problems rather than race-targeted solutions (such as Affirmative Action).

Beginning with the 1964 presidential election campaign of Barry Goldwater going thru the current presidency of Barack Obama, Lopez documents in detail how "dog whistle politics" (talking about race without mentioning the word) has been used by both parties. Harking back to the words of his Harvard Law professor and originator of Critical Race Theory, Derrick Bell, Lopez shows that while racism is a permanent fixture in American life it has evolved and changed, and the ways of addressing racism must also change. The tactics of the 1950's and 60's largely do not work today, so that addressing racism today must take into account the commitment to colorblindness and post-racialism at work in the Republican and Democratic parties respectively. Lopez concludes the book with a number of suggestions for politicians, foundations, unions, civil rights organizations, educators and ordinary citizens to talk about race openly and demonstrate how the use of dog whistle politics not only injures people of color, but also a large majority of middle class and low income whites.

My one concern and criticism of the book is that Lopez clearly sees the path to racial justice running through a return to the liberal policies of FDR's New Deal. His criticism of liberals is not just that they have avoided talking about race, but also that they aren't liberal enough. However, Lopez has romanticized the FDR/New Deal era and seems to have overlooked that many of FDR's reforms excluded blacks initially and only when A. Philip Randolph called for a March on Washington in 1941 (an idea that never died and was resurrected in the famous 1963 March at which MLK gave his famous Dream speech), that FDR relented and began opening up opportunities for blacks. Haney assumes that the white liberal is the friend of the person of color, but history does not support that assumption. What is needed is a far more radical solution than a return to liberalism. Many of his suggestions will move the country in the right direction, but unless race-based policies (such as the way public schools are funded) are not completely overhauled, the structural inequities that plague the US will only morph and change some more.

The other thing I wished he had addressed, but perhaps this is the responsibility of others, is the way in which white progressives can be allies in the efforts to uncover and undermine dog whistle racism. Lopez shows how "common sense racism" operates in many all white settings, but leaves unanswered how whites committed to anti-racism, can respond to and counter the self-defeating and racially tinged assumptions that lead many whites to vote for policies that would greatly benefit them, while also helping people of color.

That being said, Lopez has provided us with a new window in which to look at the nature of racism in our society. Like Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Dog Whistle Politics is a must read for anyone wanting to understand and then dismantle the racist practices and policies at work in our society today.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Ebola Hype and the Government We Deserve

There is no question that the Ebola epidemic is a tragedy that deserves our care and concern as Americans, as people of faith, and as compassionate citizens of the world. The rising toll of deaths from this dread disease in West Africa, especially Liberia, is staggering.

Yet the response by American politicians to the handful of cases now reported to have been discovered in the U.S. has been excessive. While the disease is indeed deadly, health officials have made clear that Ebola only occurs when one is exposed to bodily fluids of one who has the disease. Thus medical personnel – nurses, doctors, aides – are the most vulnerable and have to take the strictest precautions. However, for Pres. Obama under pressure from the media and the Congress to appoint an Ebola czar, and for now Republican politicians calling for closing off our borders to travelers from certain countries speaks of political hype, and overkill.

Contrast that to these same leaders’ non-response to the ongoing problem of gun violence with thousands of deaths each year. Father Michael Phleger, a Roman Catholic priest and prophetic voice from South Chicago, recently posted these words on Facebook:

Ok, so, two Americans get the Ebola and just the fear of an epidemic has Sen. Mark Kirk say we Must Ban ALL West African Countries from coming to the US.. and the President appoint an Ebola Czar......OVER 30,000 people get killed each Year from Gun Violence, which IS an epidemic....but there is NO VIOLENCE Czar....and Mark Kirk won't even vote to have Common Sense Gun Laws.....or Ban Assault Weapons..........Interesting.........Oh, that's right, most of those killed by gun violence are Black and Brown.......silly me.....

Somehow Second Amendment Rights trump everything else, even the overwhelming death and  violence due to young people’s access to guns, which Harvard professor of Public Health Debra Prothrow-Stith has long called an “epidemic.” But then perhaps Fr. Phleger has it right when he says that the majority of victims from this violence are Blacks and Latinos, and so their situation demands no such pull-out-the-stops response.

The superficiality and political opportunism of our political leaders’ response to the Ebola crisis is made evident by the contrast to their continued unwillingness and inability to address ongoing and extensive issues of human suffering in our country from gun violence to immigration to underfunded public schools to economic disparity to health care, and so much more.

Yesterday, I was part of a group  knocking on doors in West talking about pressuring politicians to adequately fund public education in Pennsylvania. There are times I wonder if it really matters when we engage in social activism or urge people to vote on certain issue like raising the minimum wage or for a fair and full funding formula for public education or reform of the nation’s gun laws.  Then I realize that if I/we don’t continue to work and press for justice, we will get the leaders and the government we deserve.  Thankfully there are folks like Father Phleger  who remind us that if we don’t raise our voices, we can be certain that the charade in government will continue. I don’t think any citizen deserves that.

[Images provided by Google Images]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Reflections on My Day in Court

Yesterday (Oct 10) I had jury duty. Ninety of us were placed in a jury pool from which 12 jurors and four alternates would be chosen for a criminal trial. The case involved the murder of a young Black man by another Black man in the small city of Chester, PA. The defendant, who looked to be in his early twenties, was nicely dressed as he sat silently with his White lawyer and the two White lawyers across from the D.A’s office, and the White judge and his clerks behind him. There we sat in the courtroom, ninety potential jurors facing the defendant, lawyers and judge.  As I looked around at the ninety of us, overwhelmingly White (maybe 8 of the 90 were not white), mostly middle aged or older, I concluded that there was no way this man could get to be tried by “a jury of his peers.”

As is customary in these proceedings, the judge asked us a series of questions designed to determine whether or not we had any preconceived notions or biases that would prevent us from being “objective” jurors. If we answered “yes” to a question, we were to stand while our juror number could be recorded. I stood when the question was asked if anyone had ever been arrested and charged with a crime. (I had been arrested in 2009 for a civil disobedience action against a gun shop). I also stood when the question was asked whether the fact that the defendant was Black would influence my ability to follow the judge’s instructions about the law in this case.

Later, along with many others I was asked to come back into a room with the judge and lawyers to explain my answers; this was not unique as approximately 80 of the 90 jurors were called back for some purpose. However, it seemed unfair that the defendant was not allowed to be in that back room and have the opportunity to question a juror if he wanted to, and at least hear their responses. When my turn came, I explained to the judge that I had been arrested in protesting straw purchasing to prevent situations like what occurred in this case, and that I “could see both sides of this issue” having also worked with youth at an early period of life.

When asked about my bias because the defendant was Black, I explained that I did not think a young Black man could get a fair trial in this system. The judge was obviously upset by this statement and insisted that he worked hard to avoid bias in his court. I responded by saying that I believed he had good intentions, but mentioning Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow,  I replied that I saw the system as broken and did not think that this man could not be fairly tried in such a system. The judge dismissed me abruptly.

Had I the opportunity to say more, I would have expressed my concern about the circumstances in education and law enforcement that contributes to young men on the street, who are unemployable, live according to a “code of the street” characterized by violence. I would have gone on to say that if the man was convicted and sent into the prison system (in which he had already been held for a year), and served his time, he would be disenfranchised upon returning to the community. Moreover, his time in prison, if it educated and trained him at all, most likely would enhance his criminal skills and not prepare him for productive citizenship. I also would have suggested that in addition to the perpetrator that the straw purchaser, the gun shop and the gun manufacturer who made it possible for an illegal gun to be used in this crime should also be on trial. Moreover, I would have raised a concern as to whether an all-white jury (which I strongly assumed would be the final jury) given the way Whites (like the judge and I) had been socialized could see that young man as much more than a thug and a threat.
Needless to say, I was dismissed from the jury pool shortly after that.

As I feared, the final jury was not representative of the overall pool or the young defendant, being comprised of eleven White Women and one White man with four alternates one of whom was an older Black man.

As I left the courthouse I was torn about my experience and the answers I had given. Had I answered the questions differently, was there a chance that I might be on the jury? Were there the individuals on the jury with views similar to mine, despite the limitations of our White socialization? However, on the other hand, I wondered, could I participate in a process and a system I know to be fatally flawed and inherently biased?

 I don’t think people who kill others should be allowed to go free, but I don’t think the system we have is designed to do any more than to remove perpetrators from the general public and dehumanize them in the process of doing so. Recently, some friends whose son was gunned down by another young man, went to trial and the perpetrator was convicted. Yet in the aftermath the couple was torn, wanting “justice” for their son, but feeling that sending the young man to jail was neither a relief to them or a solution to the larger problems facing young Black men. I left the courthouse with the same sort of confusion and ambivalence.

While situations like Trayvon Martin’s and Michael Brown’s deaths get a great deal of media play, there are thousands of low income, largely people of color, predominately male, defendants standing trial every day. The criminal justice is successful in “putting them away” but is anything being accomplished? The evidence clearly suggests not; yet how we change the system remains a conundrum and a burden I feel, especially after my day in court.

[Images from Google Images]

Friday, September 26, 2014

Reflections from CCDA – Is Racial Reconciliation Possible?

One of the central values of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and central topics of discussion at this year’s conference is racial reconciliation. On Thursday, I participated in an “action tank” whose task it was to make recommendations to the organization on how to make CCDA’s central value of reconciliation more of a reality.  However, as we dialogued, I openly questioned whether racial reconciliation is really possible in the current economic and political context. Moreover, I felt there were a number of other steps that needed to be taken before we could realistically talk about authentic reconciliation.

It just so happened that at the same time we were meeting, U.S. Atty. General Eric Holder was a announcing his resignation. Of all the senior officials in Pres. Obama's administration, Holder has been the one most outspoken on the underlying causes of racial and economic inequity in the country. His recent statements in support of a lawsuit against the state of New York for not providing sufficient funds for poor folks’ legal defense, and his public outrage at law enforcement’s mishandling of the tension in Ferguson are only two most recent examples of his willingness to speak the truth as he saw it.

As a result Holder has been a controversial figure to many and that controversy is symptomatic of the unwillingness and inability of U.S.  leaders and citizens alike to come to grips with the underlying causes of racial disparity that currently exist in our country. If we as citizens are ever to approach true racial reconciliation, there are several underlying concerns that must be acknowledged and addressed such as:

  • the continual use of racial code words in political life, 
  • the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, 
  • the unjust Supreme Court decisions giving corporations and wealthy PACs undue influence over political decisions, 
  • the unwillingness of state governments to provide the funds necessary for equitable public education, 
  • the amnesia Americans tend to have about the atrocities of our history in relation to indigenous people, African Americans, Mexican Americans and other peoples of color.

And the list goes on.

Individuals may develop meaningful cross-racial/ethnic relationships and this is significant. However, unless underlying systemic injustices are addressed, those relationships will have a limited effect. As Camryn Smith, a community organizer from Durham, NC put it this week: Racism in this country is not just about the fish getting along with each other, but also the fact that the lake we are swimming in is polluted.[my paraphrase]

So I began thinking of some pre-steps to reconciliation and I came up with a preliminary list; they all start with “R”. Before we talk about reconciliation it seems to me we need to address the following:

  • A Recognition of the way in which power and resources in this nation are distributed along racial and class lines. When the struggles of Native Americans, blacks, Hispanics, gays, women and other historically marginalized groups are only incidentally noted in the U.S. history books, we have not come to grips with the reality that the "land of the free and the home of the brave" is also the land where there was much brutality and avarice in the pursuit of power and control of the land. Moreover, with that misdistribution of resources also came an equally skewed distribution of power.
  • We need to talk about Reparations. Ta'Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly  has recently revived the discussion about reparations for the black community, which is not just in terms of money, but also making efforts to address the inequities that have resulted because of the history of oppression we have failed to recognize and admit.
  • We need get to work at Restructuring the guiding institutions of our society. Racism is not just an interpersonal issue but also a systemic and institutional issue, and concerted efforts need to be made to change laws, policies and practices that give advantage the wealthy and the white over against the poor and the persons of color. For example, when the criminal justice system has a plurality of people of color in prison, even though the crime rate is roughly equal between whites and people of color, the system needs to be change. Or, when poor school districts like School District of Philadelphia struggle financially while the wealthy suburbs just outside city lines have twice the amount of resources per student, the way education funding is done needs to be change. Without restructuring there will be no justice, and without justice there can be no reconciliation.
  • Finally there needs to be Repentance, not in the Billy Graham "come to the front of the church" style, but in the original meaning of metanoia, the New Testament Greek word for repentance. Literally, metanoia means to turn around one's mind or perspective, or worldview. Perhaps the greatest perspective needs to be in seeing that all of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, are in this struggle together. We need to move from seeing people of other racial/ethnic groups as the “other”, to seeing “them” as "us." As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us decades ago: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Current political polarities and economic policies leave us to be a nation of "winners" and "losers", haves and have-nots, but the fact is in the long run if there only some winners, we all lose in the end. Disparity and injustice only lead to the frustration and desperation (what Cornel refers to as nihilism) we see these days on the streets of Ferguson, and many of our low income communities.

I doubt that in my lifetime I will see these barriers to reconciliation fully dismantled, but being here at CCDA has helped me become even more committed to addressing the inequities that exist through recognition, reparations, restructuring and repentance, in the hopes that future generations might actually approach the reality of "liberty and justice for ALL." Then perhaps we can talk about reconciliation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I am attending the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) in Raleigh, NC for the next few days. I came here not knowing what to expect, except for using the time to network with other urban studies programs and like-minded individuals in the field of community development. The best part of most conferences for me is not in the formal program but in the relationships that are built.

However, I was struck by the opening night theme at CCDA: Lament. Often at conferences like this, especially when the crowd like at CCDA is comprised of mostly young religiously-oriented activists, the focus tends to be on pumping people up to go out and change the world. However CCDA director Neil Castellanos began the night talking about the pain in the world (Ferguson, Gaza, Central American kids at the border, violence in our streets, war in the Middle East, etc.), and called individuals in the crowd to acknowledge the world’s pain as well as their own frustration and shared pain as a result of the way the world seems to have gone wrong.

Interestingly, I had just been talking with my Christ and the City class about lament, saying that the ability to pour out our frustration, anger, hurt, grief and other emotions at God is a sign of ultimate trust. The Biblical book of Lamentations pictures a man, presumably the prophet Jeremiah, weeping and crying over the destruction of his beloved city of Jerusalem. The prophet Habakkuk complains openly to God about how Israel’s enemies are getting the best of them. Psalm 13 asks how long it is going to take God to act while God’s people languish in pain. The book of Job shows an innocent man pleading his case before God for his intense suffering and calling on God to act in his defense. All of these laments are not only directed to God, but are in effect blaming God for inaction, struggle and suffering. Yet in the genius of Hebrew poetry there is an understanding that God can take it, that we need to get our negative emotions out, and that in doing so our relationship to God is strengthened not weakened. Too often super-religious folks think getting angry at God will get you zapped. Just the opposite is true – we draw closer to God who can take our negative stuff, because God’s love surrounds us when we cry out our deepest anguish.

As I think about my efforts with POWER to bring fair funding to public schools in Pennsylvania and my efforts with Heeding God’s Call to reduce gun violence I am thankful for lament. As I see my feeble attempts to build relationships across lines of race, culture and class; as I see the injustices and inequities in our society along racial lines and income differentials; as I see the cruelty of our government toward desperate immigrant children and their families; as I wonder about this new war with ISIS/ISIL, and the conflict between Israel and Gaza, and so much more - I am glad for lament. I am glad I can feel hopeless and frustrated and powerless to change things, and even ask God why these things go on. I am glad there is a place in our faith for letting it out, then picking ourselves up, moving ahead, and trusting God to be with us in the ongoing struggle.

[Picture - Jeremiah lamenting is from Wikimedia Commons]

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Money Matters: Why A Full, Fair Funding Formula is Essential for Racial Justice in PA | Philadelphia Public School Notebook

 Link: A full, fair funding formula is essential for racial equality in Pa. | Philadelphia Public School Notebook

The following appeared in the  Friday (8/29) edition of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an open letter to the PA Legislature written on behalf of POWER by Margaret Ernst, Sheila Armstrong. The text of the letter is below.


Money Matters: Why A Full, Fair Funding Formula is Essential for Racial Justice in PA

by Sheila Armstrong, Drick Boyd, and Margaret Ernst
Last week, several Philadelphia clergy members of the interfaith organization POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) witnessed a powerful movement for racial equality grow in Ferguson, MO following the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. 
 Travelling to Missouri to call for justice and listen to a community in grief, our clergy marched non-violently with black youth asking for fair treatment from law enforcement – and even more importantly, for a sign from their fellow Americans that their lives matter. 

But as our clergy brothers and sisters returned home last week, they returned to a place where there is no dearth of racial inequality of its own. 

In our own backyards and on our watch, we witness a different kind of violence being done not just to one teenager but to hundreds of thousands of young people across Pennsylvania.  As the only state in the union without a funding formula for public education, severe cuts within the last few years have led to a disproportionate hemorrhaging of school districts with mostly African American and Latino students like Philadelphia, the consequences of which will be felt for generations.  

Sheila Armstrong, a POWER member from North Philadelphia with two boys in Philadelphia public schools, can testify to those consequences and the broken promises that have come with them.  At events in her community in 2010, she witnessed Governor Corbett and other legislators running for state office promise that a new day had come for education in the state.  But after a $1 billion cut to education funding in 2011, one of her son's elementary schools closed down.  In 2012, she wondered whether her son with asthma would be OK on days that no nurse was on duty due to staffing cuts.  This year, she was left unsure whether schools would even open in September.  

Now, school will indeed start on time, but with less cleaning services, security and transportation assistance for children.  Aside from having to worry about whether her boys will get a good education, Sheila and thousands of Philadelphia parents like her will fear every day for their basic health and safety.   

Young people of color in Missouri and across the country have wondered whether they matter in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.  As we reflect on the circumstances of education funding here in Pennsylvania, we too are left to ask, do Sheila and her sons matter in the eyes of lawmakers?

With Harrisburg’s newly formed Basic Education Commission beginning its work, now is the time for lawmakers to answer that question.  The Commission, which has met twice already and will make recommendations for a funding formula by the end of June, can and must prophetically re-imagine what it takes to fund education in our state.  To do this well, we must be willing to have an open and honest conversation about race as Pennsylvanians. 

As cuts were made at the state level, large, predominantly black, brown, and poor districts across the state such as Philadelphia, Allentown, and Reading have been left drowning without a lifeline.  Unable to make up differences in state spending with local revenue, the disproportionate impact on these students is rooted not merely in recent spending cuts nor in education policy alone.  It rests on, and perpetuates, a much longer history of disinvestment from communities of color that has created today’s dramatic racial wealth gap, and which will continue if left unaddressed.   

But in the case of education spending in PA, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  While cuts have had severe impact on Philadelphia and other predominantly non-white districts, dwindling state funds have resulted in major cuts in poor, rural districts in predominantly white communities, and soaring property taxes in the suburbs. 

All of our children are worth more.  In addition to being bold enough to talk about the severe “investment gap” in students of color and poor children in our state, the Commission must set goals for increasing education funding levels as a whole.  We must not just fairly divide up a pie that we refuse to grow – we must grow the pie.
Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq testified in the Commission’s August meeting that  “money matters” for children to achieve in school.  We cannot think of a better argument for increased funding, and for a fair distribution of those funds that ensures we will not continue to replicate an education system that in spite of other civil rights gains, is woefully still separate and still unequal.  It is the choice of the Basic Education Commission and all us Pennsylvanians whom it represents whether we will continue trends of economic and racial inequality or begin to reverse them.
The discussion about how much our children are worth to us, wherever they were born and whatever the color of their skin, is a sacred one – and has never been a more important.  Let’s have it now, and let’s have it courageously.  

Saturday, August 23, 2014

White Folks and Ferguson

A recent New York Times article on the ongoing events in Ferguson, MO was entitled “Among Whites, Protests Stir a Range of Emotions and a Lot of Perplexity.”  The article points out that while many whites want to be sympathetic to the concerns of the protesters, they do not understand the anger and frustration of the black community in Ferguson and around the country. I read this article with great interest because as I have read the articles and blog postings, and watch the televised news reports and videos of the events in Ferguson, the only whites I see are in police uniforms or riot gear. I kept wondering: where are the white folks like me, who are deeply troubled and horrified by the events of the past few weeks? I know I am not the only one, and yet we seem invisible in the media’s eyes.

Now having said that, I recognize that across the nation support among white folks for the protestors action is far less, only somewhere in the 30-40% range, compared to 80% among African-Americans. (See the Pew Report that reported this). Many well-meaning whites want to believe that we have moved past the violence of the 1950’s and 1960’s that the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others seem to represent. Whites tend to trust the police and the criminal justice system, and find it difficult to believe the kind of statistics that Michelle Alexander lays out in her book The New Jim Crow that show that blacks and whites committing the same crimes routinely get drastically different sentences when they go thru the court systems. Moreover, whites choose to believe that most of their fellow whites want to think the best of others, and would prefer “not to see skin color” (what Bonilla-Silva calls colorblind racism ) as a way of dealing with racial differences.

Over the past two years I have been writing a book entitled White Allies for Racial Justice, (scheduled to come out Fall 2015, Orbis Books) which chronicles the stories of 18 whites in U.S. history from colonial times to the present, who have worked for racial justice in their time: pre-revolutionary, underground railroad, the abolitionist movement, the anti-lynching campaign, Civil Rights and anti-racist work today. An appendix at the end of the book lists about 50 others who stories could have been told had I more space and time; and these are the ones we know about. Throughout history there has been a committed minority of white folks who chose to stand with their brothers and sisters of color, often at peril to their lives and ostracism from family and friends, because they believed that all people deserved to be treated as human beings worthy of dignity. While these stories don’t deserve the same attention as the stories of those like Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Moses and others, for many people both white and black, this is unknown dimension of the struggle for racial justice in the United States.

So I assume that there many white folks in Ferguson, as well as communities around the country, who are not only sympathetic but also are willing to take the steps necessary  to actively stand with their brothers and sisters of color in this time of crisis. I share this only because all those white folks who seemed perplexed by the events need to know that what is going in Ferguson is not just a “black issue”, but rather a human issue that includes people of all races and cultures. Too often whites, in our of confusion or fear of being considered prejudiced or racist, pull back into silence, and either deliberately or unconsciously make a crisis like Ferguson “their problem” rather than a shared problem.

 Those of us white folks who seek to be allies  not only have the capacity but also the obligation to speak to our fellow whites to help them see that Michael Brown is their son, their brother, and their friend too. While we may not get the media attention (nor necessarily should we), we need to persistently and forcefully make the case that the injustice in Ferguson impacts all. 

There is no way one can deny the anger and angst that the history of injustice and violence in this country has helped create in people of color in our country, particularly African-Americans. What we see on the television screens, YouTube channels and news articles is not some sort of aberration, but rather a simmering cauldron burning beneath the surface that in cases like this erupts like a volcano. We whites need to understand this history and that angst, and those of us who have inkling as to what is going on,  we need to help our fellow whites understand that too.

[Pictures - I am standing in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA (MLK's home church); Anne Braden, ardent civil rights activist in Louisville, KY; Memorial to Viola Liuzzo, killed following the March from Selma to Montgomery, March 1965).