Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vindication and Affirmation For Heeding God's Call

Yesterday (Sept 22), a group of us who have been leaders in Heeding God's Call met to plan and strategize as to our next actions in the local gun violence prevention movement. A significant part of our conversation centered around what are next moves should be in relation to Colismo's Gun Shop, the store that has been the focus of so many of our actions over the past 8 months. Little did we know that while we were meeting the U.S. Attorney's office was charging Mr. Colism with falsifying statements and failing to keep accurate records. On a practical level, it appears that our activities may have called attention to this particularly notorious gun dealer, and moved the process along in bringing him to justice. On another level, today feels like a vindication of our efforts, and an affirmation that God is indeed working in and through our efforts.

You may read the whole article at

Feds charge Philadelphia gun dealer

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - A Philadelphia gun dealer that has been the target of religious activists is now charged in federal court with making false statements and failing to keep records required by law.

The U.S. Attorney's Office announced charges against Colosimo's Inc. after business hours Tuesday. A man who answered the phone at the business said "What can I say?" to a reporter seeking comment and eventually hung up. Owner James Colosimo has previously said he follows all laws in his business.

Activists have targeted Colosimo's because of the number of guns sold there that end up being used in crimes. The owner has said that's to be expected from a high-volume dealership like his. He has said he believes he has saved lives by selling guns to police departments.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Racism at a Deeper Level

Former President Jimmy Carter raised a lot of hackles this week when he suggested that much of the intense opposition to Pres. Obama and his health care plan is racist in nature. He noted that as a Southerner, he can sense the “belief among a large number of white people and not just from the South that a black man is not qualified to lead this country.” I applaud Pres. Carter’s outspoken assessment. As expected, the mention of the R-word sent people off on all sorts of tangents, and even prompted Pres. Obama himself to disagree with his predecessor. Regardless of what he thought personally, that was a smart political move by Obama to rise above the name-calling.

However, Carter’s assessment should not be lightly dismissed. First of all, he has lived in the South during an openly racist time in its history, and has been around the world seeking to mediate conflicts of all sorts. A man of his stature and experience does not make such statements lightly. I felt much of the same sentiment when I left a town hall meeting a couple of weeks ago; among some in the crowd there were attitudes of elitism, classism and racism that was palpable. Furthermore, some of my African-American friends have quietly acknowledged to me the same feeling, as have some of my white friends. However, until Carter spoke up, many of us didn’t have the courage to say it, given the polarizing nature of the health care debate, the political climate of the country, and the general discomfort many feel when the topic of racism comes up.

I do not know what former Pres. Carter may have meant by the comment, but I can speak to my own thoughts. As offensive as some of the signs at last Sunday’s “Tea Party” march (comparing Obama to Hitler being THE most offensive), I have attended enough events where similarly deriding signs regarding George Bush were present to know that signs in themselves are not the issue. The mistake many make is that we equate racism simply with making openly racist statements or gesture. Most culturally sensitive people today know that such statements will only get them in trouble, so those racist statements may be thought but not spoken.

No, the racism I sense is at a deeper, subliminal level and has more to do with white people’s sense of identity than the actual words we say. Several years ago I attended the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training sponsored by the Mennonite Church, at which I was introduced to racism represented by the image of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the overt racist acts and statements most people associate with racism. However as the saying goes, such acts are only “the tip of the iceberg,” the symptoms of a much deeper condition. In the middle layer of the iceberg is the power structure that inherently favors whites in many aspects of society’s institutional life. One only has to look at the well-publicized inequities in criminal justice cases, public education, housing, health care and the like to show how society’s structures privilege whites at the expense of people of color. (This is an assertion that I know many whites might dispute, but I am not addressing that issue here). However, at the base of the pyramid is racial identity, which gets to how we whites were shaped by family and culture to think of ourselves in comparison to other racial groups. It is at this most basic level, that I sense many white people are reacting unconsciously and irrationally to President Obama. His very presence as the most powerful leader in the country and perhaps the world does not fit with our identity as white people.

In thinking of this most basic level of racial identity I refer to myself as a “recovering racist.” I was born into a racist culture, and racist perspectives shaped me before I was cognitively able to examine my beliefs and values for myself. Like a crack baby born addicted because of his mother’s addiction, so too I was born into a racist culture that said whites were more important, smarter, more worthy, worked harder than others, and therefore deserved their privileged place in society. As much as I might deride such thinking on one level, on another level it is hard to walk away from the comfort I have believing I am better than others. Like an addict seeking to break free of his addiction, I must every day confront the vestiges of racism bred into my cultural DNA.

Now let me be quick to add that I grew up in a home where racist attitudes and statements were never tolerated. In fact we children were often told not to think of ourselves better than others, and I can remember more than once when my mother chided me for such attitudes. We had African-American students living in our home thru a program called A Better Chance. Yet I grew up in a culture where African-Americans were generally portrayed either as Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, or Amos-n-Andy on the one hand, or an angry rioter, a shiftless bum or an illiterate thug on the other. I grew up in a culture where we made decisions by saying “Eenie, meenie, miney, moe, catch a N____ by the toe…,” where community variety shows had white men in black face, and where little black porter statues were place on people’s front lawns. Furthermore, until the Cosby show, I never saw a media image where African Americans or any other person of color were anything remotely like the white people we saw on TV. Whether they were black, Hispanic, Japanese, or Chinese, we had derogatory names for them that we used freely and without thinking.

These subtle and not-so subtle images portrayed a clear message: “We (whites) are not like them (blacks).” As the racial and ethnic consistency of our society has increasingly diversified, the threat to white people’s place as the dominant group has intensified. Projections are that by 2040 or so, white people will make up less than 50% of the population. For a nation that 200 years ago basically saw itself as a country of European transplants, this is a major identity shift. We whites got accustomed to being in control, to being the standard by which all things are judged, and to being in the driver’s seat of society’s rules. Obama as president is a visible reminder that the racial and ethnic power balance has shifted, and that being white does not make one feel as secure as it once did.

Obama’s prominent and capable performance as president has stirred understandable differences of opinion which are not racist in themselves, but which sometimes are fueled by a deep-seated white fear and insecurity. What I felt at the town hall meeting may be similar to what former Pres. Carter was alluding to when he said the opposition is fueled by the fact that the president is an African American. That doesn’t mean that all opposition to Obama is inherently racist. However it also doesn’t mean that just because people refrain from making openly racist statements or gestures that they are not racist. Racism is so deeply embedded in our psyches that it is not so easily expunged.

Many folks felt that with Obama’s election we had crossed some multi-racial threshold in this country. Somehow by electing a black man to be President, we could now rest easy, pat ourselves on the back, and say "we really ARE an inclusive country." However, instead I think what we have seen is that as Barack Obama has assumed his role with directness and decorum, something deep within the white soul begins to tremble at the change that is coming and life as we whites have known it will not return no matter how hard some may try.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What Do Conservatives Want?

OK, OK – You got my attention. I had regarded you as some small lunatic fringe, who did not represent the heart of the Republican Party. However, last Saturday, you were able to gather 100,000 people in Washington, D.C. You have done a good job of disrupting several town hall meetings in the past couple of months. You have been able to make people wonder if the government can really afford comprehensive health insurance for all Americans. I know you don’t like any thing that comes for the Democrats, and you especially don’t like Barack Obama. I’ll ignore the pictures that show Obama with a Hitler moustache, the signs that call him socialist and a facist. I’ll assume you haven’t read up on your history lately to know what those words and symbols actually mean. Even so, you’ve got my attention – I understand what you DON'T want. My question is what is it that you DO want?

As I have said in other places in this blog, I find the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to be relatively meaningless and misleading labels. Yet this is what folks call themselves. I also realize that most of those who will read this blog would not consider themselves anything close to being conservative. But to those of you who do, or those of you whose friend, parent, or co-worker resonate with the sentiments that were expressed in DC over the weekend, can you give me a clue as to what you are FOR, rather than just what you are AGAINST?

Do you really buy the Glenn Beck line that Barack Obama “hates white people?” Do you actually believe Rush Limbaugh when he says that there is “no health care crisis in this country?” Are you really so callous as to relegate 30 million of your fellow citizens to have no health care protection, when they could be your child, your parent, your friend, or your co-worker? Do you think anyone would set up death panels like Sarah Palin said? And all of this while health insurance companies, doctors and lawyers make off like bandits ripping all of us off. Who do you think has put up $40 million in advertising money to defeat health reform. According to Bill Moyers of PBS, that’s what the health insurance companies are spending in advertising to keep their comfortable position.

I want to believe that so-called conservatives are well-meaning people with decent ideas and a concern for their fellow human being. I want to believe they are people who care for something more than just lower taxes, smaller government, and the right to carry a gun anywhere at anytime. I want to believe that there are “compassionate conservatives” that Marvin Olasky talked about. If there are, that’s who I need to hear from because the conservative message has been hijacked by a bunch fear-induced ranters, and it does not make sense. If Joe Wilson, the representative who publicly called Pres. Obama a “liar” during his speech to Congress, is the best they can do, the Republicans and the conservatives are in worse shape than I thought.

So, Conservatives, whoever you are – help me out here, because I just can’t figure out what you are FOR, except for tearing down everything that might make it a bit healthier for everyone in our country.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Is This Democracy? I Don't Think So

When I was growing up in the 1960’s my father and I would often have vigorous discussions and debates (some called them arguments) about the issues of the day. This was the era of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation movement and so much more. My father was and still is a staunch moderate Republican who believes that Ronald Reagan was America’s greatest president in the modern era. While he laments the moral conservatism of his party, he supports its generally pro-business perspective. I, on the other hand, was and still am left of center on most issues. So, as you can imagine we had and still have some pretty steep differences on many issues.

Yet, despite those differences, our discussions were (and are) always civil, controlled and respectful. In fact on occasions when my mother, who generally sided with Dad, got emotionally worked up, he would ask her to excuse herself. Debate in our house was about expressing your position logically and respectfully, and then listening to the other. Dad modeled respectful discourse, the ability to disagree agreeably. As I have grown into adulthood, I realize it is one of his greatest gifts to me.

The other night, my wife and I, attended a town hall meeting on health care sponsored by our Congressperson, Joe Sestak. Rep Sestak is a tireless worker, a retired military man, and a moderate Democrat. He began the session with a few personal remarks, and then proceeded to field comments. The pastor of the church where we were meeting implored people to be “humble and respectful,” but when the questions started that request was quickly forgotten. At points Sestak acknowledged that he and members of Congress had not explained themselves clearly, and that was why he was there that night. Several times he expressed his desire to hear people's concerns, and address their questions. However, when he tried to explain aspects of the bill, people in the crowd just shouted “liar.” They accused him of not considering their views, even as he stood there attentively listening to their diatribes. I don’t know how he did it, but he maintained a cool and respectful demeanor in spite of much hostility (I guess that military training is good for something!). Most of the questions became opportunities for people to vent their fears, their veiled hatred of President Obama, their anger at undocumented immigrants, and their disregard for the 47 million Americans without health care. While most people, like myself, were there to learn what actually was in the bill, we had to do so through the din and noise of the hecklers.

Despite the belligerent disrespect of the questioners, I came away with a better understanding of the bill, and the reasons to support it. I also came away with a much higher regard for Rep. Sestak. However, I also came away quite discouraged about democracy as it is practiced in America.

You see, I believe strongly in democracy, in the right of people to have a voice in their government. In fact I believe in democracy, not just every 4 years, but work consistently to create spaces where community folks can come together on a regular basis to address and resolve their problems in their communities. I applaud the work of groups like Everyday Democracy that have created materials and guides for communities to come together around issues they face in their communities. I wish every state had the caucus system like Iowa come election time. These are opportunities for people to come together in the spirit of grassroots democracy to discuss and resolve the issues of the day.

However, I could not carry on such an effort with the hecklers in that crowd the other night, not because I disagree with their position, but because there is not the environment of respect needed for healthy dialogue. Media talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh on the Right and Bill Maher on the Left, have turned political discussions into shouting matches and name calling. What gets reported in the mainstream news is not the issues, but the nature of the fights over the issue. Notice, for instance, how reports of the town hall meetings generally are not about what is said on the issues, but about the guns people bring, and the shouting people do. The media is more interested in the fight than what the fight is about. And now lots of people have followed suit and brought this attitude into the town hall meetings.

I still believe in democracy, but I left the meeting with a heaviness about our ability to live together in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-cultural society where everything is not going to go my way. It seemed the other night that a lot of folks had decided to build their bunker or fortress and just start firing away over the wall with no respect for the humanity of others, or the willingness to listen, consider, and seek to work together in spite of differences.

Perhaps, Dad, we need to gather folks around a big table, and show them how democracy is really supposed to work.

Saturday, September 05, 2009