Thursday, April 03, 2014

Supreme Court Shame

During the Civil Rights Movement, the court system, particularly the Supreme Court was regarded as the one branch of government that could largely be counted on to protect the rights of African-Americans when Congress and the Executive Branch were stymied by political concerns. Because of the Supreme Court schools were desegregated and basic rights were affirmed, even when lower courts at the municipal and state level ignored or shirked their responsibilities.

However, yesterday to its shame the Supreme Court affirmed and expanded the rights of wealthy individuals to unfairly influence the political system by removing all limits on the amount of money people can contribute to political campaigns. (Link to article here)  This follows the ”Citizens United” decision of 2010 , which deemed corporations to be legally considered “persons,” who then could contribute in an unrestricted way to political campaigns.  A political system that already was bought and sold to the highest bidder, now just came even more deeply entrenched in a system where the wealthy and the powerful get access that the rest of us do not.

For the last two weeks the Philadelphia Inquirer has run a special report focusing on an investigation of five local state legislators who were caught on tape receiving money or gifts from a paid informant. The value of the money or gifts was in the thousands of dollars. While I think that such actions should be brought to light, the irony was that the problem was not that they received these money and gifts; it was that they did not report them. That is, it’s okay for legislators to receive money as long as they make it known. In Sunday’s (March 30) paper just below the latest installment on this case, there was an article describing how in 2013 Comcast, one of Philadelphia’s largest employers, spent $18.8 million lobbying for its interests, and employing 107 lobbyists to do their bidding. Comcast was listed as only the seventh largest lobbying spender in the country, the largest being the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which spent $74.5 million on lobbying in 2013. This was all perfectly legal and does not include campaign contributions.( See article here) 

What is wrong with this picture? A few small time politicians take some small change and get smeared, but large corporations and wealthy individuals get to make their case in exchange for gifts and money. Now the Supreme Court has essentially blessed this process and said the sky is the limit.

We need to recognize that whatever we want to call our form of government, it is not democracy. Democracy by definition is a system that is rooted in the community and gives all persons, regardless of rank, wealth, or position, an equal voice in government. One way to view our history as a nation is to see it as a struggle to make the dream of democracy a reality for all: people of color, women, various racial/ethnic groups, the poor, and now undocumented immigrants. The slogan “One person, one vote” is the bedrock of democracy; all get a voice and no voice is of greater inherent value than another. If we are to reclaim our democracy, it must start by denouncing the lie that wealth gives one the right to greater influence, and by working to strengthen local communities and if necessary take to the streets to reject such efforts.

In Philadelphia, the interfaith network POWER is working with local unions and the City Council to pass a referendum on May 20 that would ensure that any company doing business with the city would pay its employees and subcontractors 1 ½ times the minimum wage, which at this time would mean the wage would be $10.88/hr. Fast food workers across the country have been advocating for a similar provision in their contracts.  The Immokalee Workers in Florida have been advocated for similar treatment among farmworkers. Already the corporations have pressed hard for such efforts to fail, threatening to cut jobs while fearing that their profits might not be as great. Ironically despite their rhetoric about jobs and profits they seem to have the money to put pressure on politicians. (Hmmm – ironic isn’t it?) What communities have is people. We are engaged in a war, and the issue of a living wage is only one battle in that war.

The Supreme Court’s decision has made clear that the government is up for sale. Those who believe in true democracy, and not the plutocracy we now call our government, must act with equal or even greater force.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Implicit Racism: Wisdom from the Wise

Recently I had the privilege of hearing anti-racist writer and speaker Tim Wise speak at Messiah College’s urban campus. While ostensibly focusing on four major points, Wise covered a range of topics all pertaining to the reality of racism in the 21st century. One point that stood out to me was his discussion of implicit or unconscious racism.

During this era when we are remembering the 50th anniversaries of the significant events of the Civil Rights movement, Wise pointed out that it is easy for people to think that because people of color are no longer being hosed and beaten, and because the Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation made intentional acts of racial discrimination illegal, racism no longer exists in our society. However, as he aptly described, racism is unfortunately alive and well in both systemic forms (such as Michelle Alexander highlights regarding the criminal justice system in The New Jim Crow or students in the Philadelphia School system experience every day in their grossly underfunded public schools) and in the unconscious bias we all carry around in our heads.

Wise talked about an experiment that was conducted a few years ago in which adults were evaluated on the level of their unconscious or implicit bias. The participants were pre-tested for their basic views and attitudes on racism, and the most were found to be very open-minded, progressive thinkers when it came to issues of racial diversity and inclusion.  The participants were then placed in front of computer screens and electrodes placed on their heads to register brain activity. They were shown images that flashed on the screen so quickly that their conscious minds were not able to recognize the images, but their subconscious minds were. The researchers noted the brain activity as the images flashed by. When an innocuous image like a tree or a flower was shown the brain registered minimal activity, but when an image of a black or Latino male was shown, the brain activity spiked in 90% of the white participants. In African American participants the brain activity spiked nearly 50% of time.

Wise contended (and I would agree) that this experiment points to the reality that anyone living in the United States for any period of time carries within their psyche unconscious or implicit racism. Because of the way we are socialized, the images we are exposed to in the media, the way our history highlights some issues and ignores or excludes others, and the choices we are presented, nearly all white people, as well as a significant percentage of people of color, develop a deep-seated bias that influences their attitudes, perspectives and actions in subtle but real ways that lead to propagating or supporting racist practices in our institutions and personal lives. [For someone who would like to take a simpler version of the test mentioned above they can take the Implicit Bias Test at this link. ]

While the term is not unique to me, for many years I have regarded myself as a recovering racist. Several years ago I worked in an alcohol rehabilitation program with people going through the 12 steps of Alcohol Anonymous as part of their recovery. What I learned is that in AA people never talk about being “recovered” from alcoholism or addiction; rather they refer to themselves as “recovering”, that is always in the process of recovery. In the same way I seriously doubt that as a white person I will ever get to the point where I am over being racist, rather I will always be in the process of dealing with my implicit and explicit racism. As such just like the recovering alcoholic, I must work every day to be aware and address the racism that has been bred into me as a member of this society.

Through over 30 years of dealing with my own in-bred racism, I have learned some things about my own implicit racism and how to address it. First, just like the recovering alcoholic, I need to admit that I have a problem, that in fact  I am racist. Unfortunately most white people when confronted with the reality of racism spend an inordinate amount of energy denying that in fact they have racism in their psychological and emotional make-up. The most frequent response is to say “I’m not racist, I’m colorblind.” While I suspect their intent is to say that they try not to act in a racially prejudiced way, one cannot really live in this society and not notice race. It’s much better to let go of the charade of colorblindness and simply admit we see and experience people differently in part because we see them as a racial other. Try as we might to do otherwise, that racial discrimination has been built into us.

Second, as a white person, once I have admitted I am racist, it is important to pay attention to the dynamics of racism around me. Authors like Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, bell hooks, Tavis Smiley, Tim Wise, Joe Feagin and others have written extensively on the ways racism operates in the institutions and systems of our society. Peggy McIntosh in her classic article on White Privilege has pointed out how privilege often keeps whites ignorant and oblivious to the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers and indignities faced by people of color every day. Once we have read those books and heard those speakers, we need to pay attention and notice the way racism operates all around us. For many whites paying attention to the pervasiveness of racism is like waking up to a whole new reality.

Third we need to seek out relationships with folks, both white and people of color, with whom we can talk about our observations and experiences. Over the past twenty years I have been fortunate to develop close relationships with friends and colleagues where race is a common topic of discussion; and not in some abstract way but in very personal ways. I have actively sought to become parts of groups and organizations where the leadership is predominantly people of color. In one such group we were discussing the recent movie “The Butler;” for several of the folks of color in the room the movie had evoked memories and painful emotions that I never would have known had I not been in the conversation. These friendships keep me aware and force me to realize how limited my perspective can be.

Fourth, as a white person I need to ask the next question: What has race got to do with it? This is a question people of color have to ask all the time as they experience people and events, but which white people rarely ask. Whites are socialized to ignore and downplay the impact of race on experiences and events in their lives.  Tim Wise told of an experience when he was 23 years old and locked the keys in his girlfriend’s car. For over 20 minutes he tried to break into the car until a police officer came by. Expecting that the officer would ask for identification and an explanation for his actions, he was surprised when the officer not only neglected to ask those questions but then proceeded to join him in his efforts to break into the car, even at one point suggesting they smash the window. Wise then raised the question: How would that scenario played out if he had been a 23 year old black man? What has race got to do with it? Sometimes the answers we come will not be clear cut, but the question must be asked.

Finally, as a white person I need to practice being an ally to people of color. For the past two years I have been researching and writing a book I have entitled White Allies for Racial Justice, which hopefully will be published within the next year. In the book I define an ally as a person who recognizes that various forms of discrimination and who chooses to work alongside people who are targets of that discrimination to change the attitudes, practices and institutional structures that propagate that discrimination.  As an ally I do not act out of some sort missionary or savior complex, but rather out of the deep recognition a world free of oppression is a world of dignity, equality, humanity and justice, and therefore is a better world for all people regardless of their race or social position.

As much as some would hope that we have been able to move beyond racism, it still continues to shape our lives and distort our perspectives in 2014. As white people we have a choice to either keep our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of suffering and oppression around us, or we can commit ourselves to create the kind of society that works for all people. The journey starts within each one of us asking ourselves – are we willing to be recovering racists? Are we willing to admit our own need to recover from our implicit, unconscious racism? Are we willing to ask the hard questions and ally ourselves in solidarity with brothers and sisters of color to build a post-racist society? Only in this way can we work on our recovery from the racism that infects our society and disables us all.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The M.A in Urban Studies Program

For the past seven years I have had the privilege of teaching in the M.A. in Urban Studies program at Eastern University. Our program has concentrations in Community Development, Youth Development and Community Arts, where students are trained to use tools to transform lives and communities in the urban context. Below is a new promo video that has just been released. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the MA in Urban Studies program have them go to this link or contact Whitney Monn at

If nothing else this video will give you an opportunity to see and hear some of the amazing students I get to work with and learn a little bit of how I spend my time.

The video can be found here

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Dog Whistle Racism and the Defeat of Debo Adegbile

Last weekend during a  long 2 ½ day  drive from Minnesota to Philadelphia I listened to a podcast of the renowned PBS journalist and former White House staffer Bill Moyers interviewing legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez who has recently published a book entitled Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racismand Wrecked the Middle Class. In the book and interview Lopez describes how in order to win elections both conservative and liberal politicians have used language and images culturally coded to evoke racist stereotypes in order to motivate white voters. Through meticulous research Lopez shows how phrases like “welfare queens,” “law and order”, “war on drugs” and references to food stamps have been used like dog whistles to call upon deeply held prejudices and fears in order to seduce white voters to support efforts for less government regulation, cuts on corporate taxes, and a general distrust of government action, all the while giving more power to corporate interests control over American public life. Efforts like this have been used to influence white voters to act against their own self-interest and to increase the divide between the wealthy and the middle class, all the while scapegoating the poor and people of color in the process. More recent examples of dog whistle racism include the depiction of Obama as a Muslim and non-citizen, the relentless attack on “Obamacare,” support for reduction for food stamps, opposition to raising the minimum wage and antagonism towards immigration reform.   The language and images in each of these efforts call upon deep-seated, largely subconscious,race-based fears deeply socialized into most whites’ psyches.

So imagine my shock when I opened Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer to read that Senator Pat Toomey (Republican- PA) had led the fight to vote down the nomination of Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Division of Civil Rights. Adegbile’s "crime" was participating in the defense of  Mumia Abu-Jamal,  a former journalist, radio host, taxi cab driver, and member of the Black Panther Party who was accused of the 1981 shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. While Abu-Jamal was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, his case has been the focus of controversy for the last 30 years. Abu-Jamal has always insisted on his innocence, and his case has gained worldwide recognition. However for police and their supporters Abu-Jamal is a pariah and a symbol of a cold-blooded cop killer. While I was not in Philadelphia at the time of the incident and only know what I have been able to read in the papers over the years, I have come to realize that there are two competing narratives as to what happened on the night of Daniel Faulkner’s death. To police it was a case of calculated murder. To many in the activist black community, it was a racist travesty of justice of an innocent man wrongly accused and convicted.

Enter Senator Toomey and Debo Adegbile. Because Debo Adegbile was part of Abu-Jamal’s NAACP legal defense team during a 2011 appeal, according to Toomey he is therefore unfit to be director of the Civil Rights Division. Forget the fact that all people accused of a crime, regardless of the crime, are entitled to a vigorous defense. Forget that as a defense lawyer, Adegbile is required to offer that vigorous defense. Forget the fact that Toomey could not find any public actions or statements by Adegbile about Abu-Jamal. Toomey gathered all sorts of documents and YouTube videos arranged to make a case against Adegbile but never even spoke to him. As a defense lawyer Adegbile was doing his job; defense lawyers by design defend people accused of a crime, but to Toomey that in itself is a crime.

Toomey’s actions against Adegbile raise troubling questions. Was Pat Toomey calling upon deep-seated racist fears to further his cause against Adegbile? Did he resort to silent racism to disqualify an otherwise highly qualified candidate? Was he even aware of what he was doing? What if Faulkner had been black and Abu-Jamal white, and Adegbile defended Abu-Jamal, would Toomey assume Adegbile unfit to serve in the government? Highly unlikely. Without mentioning race, Toomey played on racist stereotypes and fears, and won his fight to derail the nomination. Ian Haney Lopez says this is the essence of dog whistle racism: one does not ever have to mention race, the images and stereotype do that without the word being spoken.

By appealing to fears of a “cop killer” Toomey was able to cast Adegbile and Obama (who nominated him) as somehow seeking to undermine the justice system. The fact that Adeqbile worked for the NAACP and would head the Civil Rights division only adds to the race-based fears that somehow the justice system itself might be undermined. Never mind that it was this same NAACP that over 60 years led the fight to overturn the then legal process of racial segregation and oppression. Even now Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) has shown how the U.S. criminal justice systematically and unfairly punishes people of color as compared to their white counterparts.  So the criminal justice system has many flaws both past and present. That someone like Adegbile might fight to correct something he believed the system did wrongly is what we would hope courageous people of principle would do. However, by choosing to stir up racist stereotypes and fears, Toomey and all the Senators who followed his lead, have participated in the basest form of character assassination against Debo Adegbile for sake of political gain, and we as a nation are degraded for having fallen prey to such a hideous and seditious racism.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast and/or read the book. Ian Haney Lopez  shows us that the racism of the 21st century is far more seductive and pervasive than most well-meaning whites and people of color would like to admit. The podcast can be accessed via this link.

(images from the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Seeking Deeper Power

Just over five years ago on a very cold January afternoon I was arrested along with six others for blocking the entrance to Colisimo's gun shop on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. We were there to call attention to the store’s complicity in the straw purchasing process that leads to illegal guns getting into communities that are overwhelmingly used in street crimes. In the trial that ensued one of the things that I was always uneasy about is that in our defense, our lawyer stressed that we were praying in front of the store as part of our protest. While I understand that public prayer has been an effective from of political protest going back at least to the Civil Rights Movement, that it makes for good political theater, and that was an effective legal defense strategy, in my case it just was not true. Frankly I was too #%&@ cold to pray!

There were some deeply spiritual people among the twelve people who were arrested over the two days of civil disobedience protest: a young woman who later that year walked the El Camino in northern Spain; a Jewish Rabbi who is  a spiritual guide to many young Jews; a Quaker activist who on the street and in the jail regularly called us to pray. But not me. Now I did have a sense going in that I was living out the apostle Paul’s call to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice”(Roman 12.1). However, while I probably should have been praying, I wasn’t. In that moment of protest I was not calling on a deeper source of power to transform Mr. Colisimo’s heart; I was just trying to stay warm while sitting in front of his store. Moreover,  when I was arrested and spent a day and night in jail I did not call on and sense God’s presence in the jail cell; I wish I had because when I was left alone by myself in the cell I felt  totally cut off from people and God , so much so that I  nearly went crazy. Instead of meeting God that day, I experienced trauma and a spiritual emptiness that took months for me to process. (To see my reflections on the experience go to this link). So when my lawyer said I was praying in front of the store, I wish it were true, but I was not.

Five years later in a different way I find myself facing a similar challenge and question. I find myself in a spiritual state of unease while being involved in the faith-based network POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding). Through POWER I am engaged  with many others in a campaign to convince the governor and legislature of Pennsylvania to develop a full and fair funding formula for resourcing the state’s public schools, particularly the Philadelphia School system. In our meetings we talk about developing and exercising power, by which we mean getting people out to vote and to rallies in sufficient numbers to convince politicians that we are force to be reckoned with. Most, if not all, of the people involved would consider themselves “people of faith” by which they mean that their values and worldviews are shaped by their faith tradition be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Our gatherings often begin with prayer and a faith reflection, and yet somehow I feel like we are missing something extremely important, a deeper power, the power of the Spirit that shapes and informs our various faith traditions.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the co-founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation writes about the Perennial Tradition, a belief coming out of the Roman Catholic tradition that affirms that there is “a Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world” that connects all the world’s faith traditions and from which each of  those traditions emerge. He compares this Divine Reality to an underground stream from which all faith traditions draw their strength and inspiration. Through the years there have been numerous efforts by Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist teachers to articulate and describe this deeper source of power that links all faith traditions, while at the same time honoring the uniqueness of each. Now for some this idea of a deeper power linking all spiritual traditions wades into troubling theological waters. For instance, in my Christian tradition we emphasize that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and Life and no one comes to [God] except through [him]” (John 14.6).  I have come to see this statement as just another one of the paradoxes of my faith, such as the first shall be last, that in dying we find new life, that in suffering there is victory, and that blessing comes through suffering. In the same way Jesus is the Way while at the same time he points me to a deeper power linking to people of various faith traditions much different than my own.

How else do we account for some of the great leaders and spiritual teachers who come from different traditions. How do I as a Christian account for the power of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malcom X, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel? Yes I am inspired by Christian leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., John Woolman and Thomas Merton, but I can not dismiss the power of these other voices from outside my tradition as well.

I am not what one would call a spiritual person. Yes, I worship and pray, but I don’t go through life with an ever-present awareness of God in my life. I have never heard God’s voice, or had a profound mystical experience. Even so I work at it, regularly reading the Bible and other spiritual readings. I even try to meditate. The great teachers say to do it right you should meditate at least for 20 minutes two times a day. I can barely manage 10 minutes once a day, if that; I feel better for it, but I am not expecting any great breakthroughs anytime soon.

On the other hand, some of my most profound spiritual experiences have occurred in very non-religious, non-spiritual settings, such as when I attended the 2010 U. S. Social Forum where 15,000 social activists (most of whom were decidedly secular) met to share ideas and strategize on ways to bring about social change or when I gathered with about 50 others for a vigil in Philadelphia’s Love Park to call attention to gun violence in our community, or when I am walking the streets of West Philadelphia watching and sensing the dynamic of the neighborhood. Somehow when I am out there in the community working for the change that is needed in concert with many others, that’s when I feel most aware of God’s presence.

I try to practice what I and others have called an engaged spirituality, an approach that seeks to meet Christ in the midst of the people in action. It is through engaged spirituality that I wish that groups like POWER and Heeding God’s Call (a faith based group working on gun violence prevention) would realize that our strength and power comes not just from being able to exercise our political muscle but also comes from that deeper source from which all our spiritual traditions issue. Gandhi and King talked about soul-force, which I take to mean a source of power that is more than simply the collective numbers of faith-oriented persons working on a particular issue. Heschel said that prayer by its very nature is subversive  and that it works to overthrow the powers of oppression and falsehood. How do we tap into the power that can topple the power structures of our day? That’s the question I grapple with.

As I sometimes have shared in this blog space, I have grown skeptical of the political process in our day largely because the politicians are beholden to the wealthy 1%, lobbyists and corporations who line their pockets in exchange for deference and favors. For example, when 80% of Americans polled after the Sandy Hook massacre think there ought to be stricter gun laws and the Congress can’t even pass a weak background check bill, it is pretty obvious the politicians are not listening to the people; they are following the money. So I am skeptical of using the tactics of people power, unless those people come with pockets full of cash. To defeat the powers that be we must draw not just on our political power, but also on that deeper power that unites us as people of faith. We need to find ways to pray corporately even as we act to bring down the rulers of our day, both political and financial, so that justice can roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream of the Spirit (Amos 5.24.)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Eating Ourselves Alive

When I was about 7 or 8 years old I went to visit my cousins who lived in the Chicago area. They had some guinea pigs who had just had babies. After the babies were born they took the adult guinea pigs out of the cage because as my aunt explained if the adult guinea pigs were not removed, they might eat their newborn babies. That memory came back to me the other day when I read about Dick Metcalf, a long time columnist with Guns & Ammo magazine who was fired for writing a column entitled “Let’s Talk Limits” in which he challenged the idea that the there ought not be any government regulation on gun use or ownership. He wrote: “…. way too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement. The fact is all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.” In the past Metcalf has advocated regulation of concealed weapons and called for carriers of concealed weapons undergo training and preparation for responsibly bearing arms.

According to the editors of Guns and Ammo Metcalf went too far this time. Two days after the column appeared in late October, Metcalf was told that two major gun manufacturers, Ruger and Remington, threatened to pull their ads from the magazine unless Metcalf was fired.  So you know what happened. Metcalf is only the most recent of respected journalists and leaders in the pro-gun community who have been vanquished for questioning the “all or nothing” mentality of the NRA zealots and gun manufacturers.  Note that people like Metcalf are hardly what one would consider “moderate” on the issue of gun rights, so the fact that he would be ostracized shows just how narrow and rigid the “pro-gun” advocates are. The Second Amendment has become the holy grail in the minds of its worshippers, granting them absolute freedom to do whatever they want in the area of gun use and ownership. Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Tucson – nothing must dampen their worship of the almighty right to bear arms.

This most recent issue is illustrative of what is happening in the conservative political community in general. The Tea Party advocates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are creating havoc within the Republican party, so much so that even House Speaker John Boehner, who is about as conservative as they come, has called them out for being too rigid and unyielding. Even Boehner knows that most of the gridlock in the House last year came about because Tea Party hardliners are trying to foist their rigid views on the rest of the Republican Party.  Like my cousins’ guinea pigs, they appear to be devouring one another.

Those of us who stand outside that intra-conservative debate should take note. Seeking to dialogue or reason with the ardent, hardline Tea Party, pro-gun types is not a logical strategy. However, joining forces with some who have been ostracized by their own people might make sense. On the other hand, we need to realize that as intractable and annoying as the John Boehners of the world may seem, they are only part of the problem. At issue is a deeper sickness in our culture.

While I get an admittedly sick joy in seeing conservatives beating up on one another, at the same time I am troubled by the uncompromising mean-spiritedness and narrow-mindedness that seems to be endemic in our culture. Last month I attended a rally commemorating the one year anniversary of the Newtown, CT shootings. The main speaker was former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, who during his term had attempted unsuccessfully to pass legislation restricting the sale of handguns through a predominantly Republican legislature. At the rally last month Rendell’s solution and charge to those gathered was that we become “one-issue voters” like the pro-gun folks. In other words, he was asking us to become as rigid, narrow-minded, and unyielding as our adversaries.  While I have yet to think of an appropriate alternative I found Gov. Rendell’s solution to be a less than satisfying.

Developmental psychologists tell us that one of the marks of maturity is the ability to live and work with ambiguity. By that standard our culture (as illustrated by the pro-gun rigidity and Gov. Rendell’s response) has regressed to a pre-teen level. Such a culture has no more room for a thinking person on the left as it does for a thinking person like Dick Metcalf on the right.  Perhaps those of us who are a bit more grown-up (i.e. those who realize that ambiguity and compromise are not bad things) need to let the purists devour themselves, while we try to figure out a way to live and work together productively. Holding strong opinions and views on issues is not the problem, nor is holding to one’s position on some issues. However, when rigidity and narrow-mindedness become the only response, then like those guinea pigs all we are doing is eating each other alive.

* pictures from Google Images

Thursday, January 02, 2014

What It Feels Like to be an Oxymoron

“He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction” – Kris Kristofferson “The Pilgrim”

Recently, I came across an open letter written by Asian-American Activist Kil Ja Kim entitled “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron.” I encourage you to read it for yourself (link here ), but here is a short summary. She begins with the observation that “whiteness is a structure of domination” which is “at the heart of the U.S. social, economic and political system.” It is important to note that Kim writes this letter specifically for those whites who see themselves as actively working to dismantle that white supremacist system. Yet as she points out white people are those who benefit from the system and for whom and by whom the system was created. Even as white anti-racists work to dismantle the system, they are benefiting by it.

Whites cannot be but what and who they are. Kim is particularly bothered by whites who try to use their anti-racist stance as a badge of honor and who try to emulate people of color in their dress, hairstyles, speech and lifestyle. They try to take on some sort of “marginalized” social position not realizing that for whites such a position is largely a matter of choice, whereas for people of color there is no choice; marginalization is the position the white supremacist system has placed them in.

From my perspective Kim’s most damning statement is that “white activism, especially white anti-racism, is predicated on an economy of gratitude,” by which she means that anti-racist whites expect people of color to be grateful for them having joined the liberation cause. She points out that while people of color may be thankful for their white allies, those same people of color are often made to feel inferior for needing “help” in the first place. She concludes by challenging whites to do their own work, and to “figure out ways in which whiteness needs to die as a social structure and as an identity in which [whites] organize [their] anti-racist work.”

I plead guilty to having thought or done everything Kim mentions in her letter, and more. Most, if not all, that she says is true for most whites involved in anti-racist work. I have come to realize that I cannot not be racist. Like a fetus in the womb of a drug addicted woman, I was born addicted to racist privilege. This is not to say that my parents or any one in my extended family was a member of the KKK or a white supremacist group. On the contrary, my family has generally been liberally minded and inclusive when it comes to matters of race. However, the privilege we enjoy living in this society simply because we are white (See Peggy McIntosh’s classic essay on white privilege), the financial wealth we inherit because it could be passed down, the access to education, employment, cultural opportunities and more – these are all things that come to us as whites  simply because we are white. The society around us, the media we watch, the education we receive, the history we read and much more has explicitly and implicitly contended that the white way of life is the norm while at the same time has demeaned or  ignored the contributions of  people of color in those same arenas. So, yes for these reasons and many more, I am a racist.

I also consider myself an anti-racist ally; therein lies the contradiction. In my teaching, writing and work for gun violence prevention and educational justice I seek to name, challenge and dismantle structures of privilege and oppression (often two sides of the same coin). In my consumer choices, my investments, my friendships, and work relationships, I seek to be a voice and advocate for equity and justice. I have tried to do these things always maintaining relationships of accountability with friends of color who can and will set me straight. In spite of my best efforts I have spoken, acted, and thought in ways that betray my attachment to whiteness and my racism. Moreover, I take for granted many things that come to me simply because I am white. I try to be aware of such things, but I know I mess up much more than I wish.

I will also admit to participating in what Kim calls the “economy of gratitude.” In the past I have expected people of color to be thankful that I am ‘on their side.” However, I no longer think that way. I now realize that it is in the long term interest of white people, as well as people of color, that the structures of white power and privilege be dismantled. White anti-racist speaker, Tim Wise says it this way: “I fight racism because racism is a sickness in my community, and it damages me” (White Like Me, p. 182).  The laws and structures that degrade and dehumanize people of color in other ways dehumanize whites. The racism embedded in white society distorts and disables whites from living in the world as it is, even as it oppresses and alienates people of color.

I no longer expect people of color to appreciate me. In fact if I am honest I will admit that I need people of color to challenge me and hold me accountable, and make me feel uncomfortable from time to time. Kim ends her essay saying that people of color have got their work to do and whites have their work to do. Whites’ work is to figure out how dismantle whiteness and build identity on something other than the power and privilege that comes from simply being white. That system, while it is still in place, is a dying system, and keeps whites from living in meaningful relationships across differences of race and culture. It keeps whites from seeing themselves clearly for who they are. It keeps them from seeing the huge mistakes and crimes that their ancestors have perpetrated through history. It keeps them from embracing the present and future diversity in our country. It causes them  to fear those who are not like them. It cripples them, it cripples me, in so many ways.

So I accept that I am an oxymoron, a walking contradiction. At the same time I aspire to be a living paradox, an apparent contradiction that seeks a deeper truth and reality of what it means to be human. So for the time being, I will accept feeling out of place in the world – not at home in the company of whites who take their privilege for granted, while simultaneously accepting that people of color have an understandable and justifiable distrust of white anti-racists  like myself. Not always a comfortable feeling, but I think and hope it is the right way to try and live out my convictions for racial justice.