Saturday, December 20, 2014

The God of Interruption - An Advent Meditation in the Light of Ferguson

For me, the period of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is usually a kind of personal sacred time. Each year I begin this five week season by making a list of all the people, events and things in the past year for which I am thankful. Then I go thru Advent with a sense of yearning, anticipation and renewed hope for a better world. Advent then culminates with the celebration of Christmas with its mixed focus on the birth of Jesus, the coming together of family, and the sharing of presents. Then a week later we welcome a new year and I write down hopes for the year to come. I began this practice nearly 40 years ago when I was in college  and it has served as sort of liminal time where I move from one year to the next, from being fatigued and doubting to having a renewed hope and focus for the future.

However, this year my Thanksgiving to New Year’s sacred time has taken on a different feel. Two days before Thanksgiving the decision was announced that Officer Darrin Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. A week later a similar announcement was made regarding the officers responsible for choking and killing Eric Garner. Almost immediately demonstrations erupted around the country. Die-ins were held in select shopping malls on Black Friday. In cities from east to west groups of young people marched with hands held high signs saying “Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.” Here in Philadelphia there have been marches that interrupted the city’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, a die-ins at major intersections during rush hour and following a Philadelphia Eagles game, a service of the Seven Last Words of Black people, and numerous marches throughout the city. Even larger gatherings have occurred in New York and Washington bringing attention to this issue on both a local and national scale.

While I have not participated in any of these marches or demonstrations, I have watched them closely and have been a part of numerous conversations both formal and informal. In these conversations there have been a wide range of emotions expressed from anger to guilt to confusion. Many of my white friends have wondered where and how and whether they should fit in the demonstrations. Others have wondered where the demonstrations will lead and what if any changes will come about because of them.  Some media commentators have focused on the few instances of violence and have questioned whether demonstrators  are “hurting their cause" by interrupting normal activities and generally causing disruption. To be sure in many ways at this point the demonstrations appear to more about expressing anger and frustration at police brutality and more generally a unjust criminal justice system, than calling for concrete specific change.

However, as I have studied the history of social movements, and particularly the Civil Rights Movement, what appears in hindsight to have been a clear, focused effort toward social change was at the time it occurred often chaotic, controversial and confusing. For that reason, I share the demonstrators’ anger and frustration, and at the same time I have hope that emotion can be channeled into concrete action for positive social change. However, if history teaches us anything, that process will be haphazard, confusing, frustrating and filled with stops and starts. Thus it will require clear leadership and perseverance over a long haul.

Coincidentally as I have been going thru my "sacred time," the demonstrations have given me a renewed appreciation for the disruptive nature of the birth of Jesus in his time. The Christmas story we hear usually focuses on a mother, father and a child born in a barn accompanied by angels and wise men. However a part of the story often overlooked is the social chaos that ensued because of his birth. According to the gospel of Matthew, when King Herod realized a child-king was being born in his midst, he ordered mass infanticide in hopes of killing his would-be adversary;  the people of the land were terrorized. As a counterpoint to Herod’s action in Luke’s Gospel when Mary learns of her pregnancy, she sings a song which in part said:

God has brought down rulers from their thrones 
but has lifted up the humble.
 God has filled the hungry with good things, 
but sent the rich away empty.

Then when the infant Jesus was presented in the temple a few days after his birth, the prophetess Anna and the prophet Simeon proclaimed the child was the harbinger of a new age..

The birth of Jesus, while at one level benign and blessed, at the same time set in motion a process of significant change. Contrary to the image of a silent blessed night, the birth of Jesus was accompanied by violence, chaos and fear, as well as hope for a better day. At the heart of the Christian story is a God who enters history for the purpose of interrupting and disrupting the status quo in order to bring hope and justice to hurting and oppressed people.

Angela Glover Blackwell, the CEO of Policy Link, an organization dedicated to promoting equitable and sustainable economic development in low income communities, grew up in St. Louis and recently spoke about the events in Ferguson over the past few weeks. Like Black people in nearby Ferguson, Glover as a child remembered being treated as a second class citizen because of her skin color. Reflecting on recent events in light of Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, she suggested that the demonstrations are a sign that people have hope. When people have hope and their expectations are not met, they get angry and act out. Thus, while recent events may appear on the surface to be chaotic and at times even violent, Blackwell believes they are a sign that people want better and are willing to speak up and work for it.

In the same way, the birth of Jesus was a sign of hope for his time and for ages to come. Perhaps in interrupting and disrupting our normally festive Christmas season, these demonstrations remind us that God is again breaking in to move us to work for a society where race and class are no longer the determining factor as to who is treated fairly and humanely, and who is not. They are a sign that people of faith and conscience, working together can and must fight to create a world where the lion and the lamb can lay down together and where the young black man and the white police officer can achieve reconciliation at a table of mutual respect, common concern and equitable justice.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The Meaning of Ferguson for White Folks

Over a week has passed since the announcement was made that Ferguson police officer Darrin Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of Michael Brown. Over the last week there have been demonstrations in Ferguson and cities around the country protesting the non-indictment and its relationship to police brutality, a racially discriminatory criminal justice system and other forms of institutional racism. Many articles, blogs and TV commentators have reported these events and others observers have sought to analyze the meaning of these events as they relate to the state of Black America and racism in this country. While the St. Louis Grand Jury did not indict, the U.S. Justice Department has initiated its own investigation into the event. Moreover, there has been a vigorous discussion and even debate among Black Americans over how to interpret these events. One topic that has been noticeably absent in these discussions is the meaning of Ferguson for white folks.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, David Brooks, the respected NY Times columnist participated in his weekly National Public Radio discussion on the political issues of the previous week and said this about the reaction to Ferguson: 

“[President Obama in his reaction to Ferguson has shown] the ways we're still living with legacy of the civil rights movement - in that era - and the ways times have changed. The civil rights movement was as clear as you get to a right versus wrong issue as you get in domestic politics.

Now when we talk about racial matters, we're dealing with a variety of subjects - the legacy of racism, the problems we have with our sentencing, disappearance of working-class jobs, family structure - and to me what's happened is that racial issues have become embroiled in a whole series of very tricky domestic issues. And so what was once a pretty clear right versus wrong moral cause has become a moral cause, but much more ambiguous …” [emphasis mine]

Brooks’ comments reflects a common perception among most White Americans that during the Civil Rights Era the issues of racial justice were clear cut, but now it is much harder to sift out racism from other domestic issues. Moreover implied in Brooks’ comments is the idea that in many ways we should be past all these “racial matters.” Yet, had we been in Montgomery in 1955 or Little Rock in 1957 or Selma in 1965, these “racial matters” were equally entwined then as now with “domestic issues” like economics, education, the right to vote, and the nature of culture. Looking back the issues may have seemed to be a case of “clear right versus wrong,” but not for the folks who lived during those events.

Yet, for many Black Americans, the issues are still clear. If the Pew Research Center is to be believed there is a huge gap in how Blacks and Whites interpret these events. In August of this year Pew reported that 80% of Blacks polled thought Ferguson raised important racial issues, while only 37% of Whites thought race had anything to do with Ferguson. For Black folks the issues are clear; it is White folks who don’t seem to see things clearly. The gap in perception itself reveals that Whites and Blacks are living in two Americas with two widely divergent views of the deeper meaning of these events.

As uncomfortable as it may be, we who are White must recognize that in many ways we are Darren published testimony before the Grand Jury Darren Wilson expressed his fear of Michael Thomas likening himself to “a five year old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Darren Wilson is not a small man. He is 6’4”, and an armed police officer.  Yet in his fear he shot Michael Brown 12 times; how could not that literally be overkill? But more to the point, if I am honest, I have to admit that I understand his fear. Though I was raised by progressively minded parents and consider myself to be strongly anti-racist, deep in my psyche I have absorbed the image of the scary black man, and the irrational notion that young Black men are to be feared. A former teacher of mine, Dr. Charles Tillman referred to white racism as a form of mental illness; this deep fear is a clear example of how sick some of us White folks can be, and we don’t even know it.
Wilson, and the all-white Ferguson police force is White America. We would like to think that Officer Wilson and events in Ferguson, are an anomaly, but they are not. In his

The political leadership of Ferguson is America, too. In a town that is 70% Black, only one councilperson is Black, and the police force is all White. While we have a Black president and many other political leaders of color, when we look at the Congress, state governors and political leadership of the nation, the percentage of White leaders far outpaces the number of Whites in the country. And just like David Brooks, most of these leaders just don’t get that racism is a problem. More than that, the systems in place, be they criminal justice, education, health care, and other systems, are designed to serve Whites more fairly than people of color. The results are found in how much better these systems work for the average White person versus how they work for people of color.

The point of seeing ourselves in Ferguson is not to raise guilt or to get into a debate on the details of the case, but rather to recognize that as Whites in the United States, we are (in most cases) the unwitting beneficiaries of a system and a culture that provides us with advantages and opportunities that people of other races do not enjoy. This is not to diminish the hard work and individual success that many Whites enjoy; it is only to say that the game is rigged and we didn’t know it.

Furthermore, if the emotions and issues raised by Ferguson are ever to be fully addressed, we who are White must be as much a part of the conversation as our Black counterparts. In our churches, coffee shops, dinner tables and wherever White folks gather, we need to ask ourselves: what does Ferguson say about White folks like us? How are we like the leaders and police force in Ferguson? How are we like Darren Wilson? How must we and the society we live in change, so that the Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins of this world not only can survive, but have a fair shot at success in this country? When we get to our deep feelings and hidden thoughts, the answers may not be politically correct, but they will be honest.

As any therapist will tell you, healing from any mental illness (and racism is a mental illness), begins with honesty. We White folks need to get honest about Ferguson; it’s not just a Black problem, it’s our problem too.

[Images from Google Images]

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Today, as I was preparing to board an early morning flight to Minnesota, where I will join my family for Thanksgiving, I heard the news of the St. Louis grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. After briefly summarizing the prosecuting attorney's 45 minute statement, the reports centered on the response of the crowds in St. Louis and Ferguson. While mentioning the appeals by Brown's parents, African American leaders and even Pres. Obama to protest non-violently, the reporters went on to focus on the looting and shooting that occurred. I was struck by the contrast by the news reports and individual interviews of people on the ground who said that had heard some gun shots, but had not seen violence or guns. More disturbing than this skewed reporting was near lack of analysis of both the case itself and the larger meaning of these events.

No doubt many authorities, as well as a majority of White Americans, will want to say the grand jury's decision has been rendered, let's pack up and move on.   However, to many African Americans  ˘ this case is representative and symbolic of what it means to young and Black in America. Many will rightfully ask: Had the roles been reversed (a Black teenager shooting a White police officer) would the prosecutor and grand jury needed 105 days to render a decision? While it is good that the grand jury took such care to examine all the evidence and we must recognize the conflict of accounts between eye witnesses and Officer Wilson himself, but we dare not miss the larger issues at stake.

In a brief review of the history of Black America in the 20th century, one can't help see parallels between Ferguson and lynchings of the early 1900's and the state violence against protestors in the 1950's and 1960's.  These are not isolated incidents but part of a larger historical pattern where young black bodies are expendable in the pursuit of "law and order." Yes, we have come a long way from lynchings and Bull Connor's dogs and hoses in Birmingham, the riot gear and the National Guard being called out in Missouri should cause us to wonder if we have come as far as we think we have.

Just days before the verdict a 12 year old boy was shot by a police officer in Cleveland for waving a toy gun around. In Philadelphia and cities across the country, school districts that serve the predominantly low income Black and Latino students are underfunded and provide substandard education despite heroic efforts by teachers to make up for scarce resources. Lawyer/authors like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) have documented that the criminal  justice system disproportionately and more severely sentences Black and Latino men.  Whether talking about education, housing, health care, employment opportunities and general quality of life issues, if you are poor, Black and/or Latino/a your access to the opportunity in this country is circumscribed by your race and class status.

Michael Brown's death occurs in this context, and while the legal case may have been dismissed, the larger meaning of this event remains.... and must be addressed by a new Civil Rights Movement. One of the promising thing in Philadelphia is in response to the verdict, youth-oriented organizations led a peaceful march that their elders supported and praised. While I was not able to be there several leaders of POWER, the interfaith social justice network, were. Every death is one too many; every injustice is one too many. However, if these events can galvanize young people to address these injustices with the support of those of have lived thru injustices before, there may be some good yet to come from this tragedy.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Tribute to Teachers

The other day as I was getting dressed in the locker room at my local Planet Fitness, a young man standing in front of the locker next to mine, asked “Sir, excuse me, what do you for a living?” When I told him I was a college professor, he said “I thought so. You remind me of a teacher I had in grade school.” He went on to tell me about this ex-NFL player-turned Kindergarten-teacher he had at the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in the Roxboro section of Philadelphia. He said that this teacher made an impact on him and “all the kids in the project.”

I was touched by the young man’s story. Here he was 18-20 years after the fact telling a total stranger the impact one dedicated teacher made on his life. Teachers don’t often know the impact they have on their students; even students don’t often know at the time; it is only much later when something reminds us of a teacher who shared his/her life with us in transformative ways.

I pray for teachers, particularly in the K-12 systems of our cities. In part it is because my oldest daughter is a middle school special ed teacher, and I hear the stories she tells of the kids she deals with. Additionally, I know many others who are or have been teachers, and have seen the kind of dedication and commitment most of them bring to the classroom. I think of another friend, a GR6-12 principal who has taken young men under his wing, shown them tough love, and helped them see what it is to a man in a violent and dehumanizing world. Teachers like that aren't confined to the curriculum, they see what they do as giving their lives to kids in meaningful ways.

I also hurt for teachers because so often they are blamed for the troubles in schools today. In Philadelphia as well as many districts, teachers are continually being asked to do more with less. Because the school district cannot adequately supply their classes, they spend their own money or ask friends and family for donations of pencils, paper, markers and other necessities of the classroom. Meanwhile they are often vilified by conservative politicians who want to undermine their rights to organize and unionize, while blaming their salaries and benefits for a district’s fiscal crisis.

While most teachers earn a decent wage, they are by no means overpaid. Those who don’t know any better will claim that teachers get a year’s wage for 9 months of work. Anyone who has sat in a middle or high school classroom like I have and watched what goes on in these overcrowded, underfunded schools, knows they earn every penny and more. Programs like Teach for America bring bright college grads, give them a crash course in teaching methodology and classroom management, and then send them into under-resourced schools. While the intention is honorable (to encourage these best and brightest to give back to others), programs like TFA leave the impression that anyone can teach. Yet TFA volunteers burn out or leave after a year or two and kids are left to “train” another new idealistic recruit while those teachers who have persevered for years are undermined and under appreciated.

As I reflect on my educational experience, I can point to teachers whose impact I still feel over 40 years later. Why should I be surprised that a 20-something old kid would be reminded of the impact of one of his teachers just because I sort of looked like him?

As I was packing up to leave, I said to the young man: “If you ever have a chance to see that teacher, tell him what you told me. He would appreciate it.” Whoever you are, I hope he finds you- you made quite an impression.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Dear White People

Last weekend I went to see the film “Dear White People.” Having seen all the trailers and promos on the internet, I expected to see a Spike Lee type film designed to put White people in their place because as a group Whites tend not to get this “race thing.” Instead I was surprised to discover the film to be a serious and intelligent look at what it means to be Black in the United States in 2014. If I were to guess the meaning of the title, it would be in essence to say “Dear White people, don’t put us in boxes and stereotypes. We want the freedom to shape our identities in any we want, just like you.”

In her ground breaking book, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Beverly Tatum points out that developmentally the college age years are a time of exploring, experimenting and eventually shaping one’s adult identity, and for many Black young adults this means joining in Black fraternities and other social clubs to explore the meaning of being Black in 2014.  She convincingly contends that Black kids stick together not primarily out of resentment of hate of Whites, but because they are trying to navigate the ambiguous and often hostile terrain of racism in U.S. culture. I could not help but think about this book, along with Spike Lee’s “School Daze” as a backdrop to this film.

One of the precipitating events in the film is the election of Sam, an apparently militant Black Power
anarchistic biracial feminist as head of the all Black dorm at prestigious Winchester University. While on the outside she seems to have her stuff together, as the film progresses we learn that she is as confused as her peers wanting to express herself, but sneaking off with a white boyfriend while simultaneously worried about the health of her desperately ill white father whom she loves deeply. While this is going on internally, outwardly she leads a campaign to exclude all White people from the Black dorm’s cafeteria, and heads up a campus wide radio program called “Dear White People” in which she chides White people not to try and  "act Black" because they don’t get it.

In response, an all-White dorm decides to host a Halloween party where invitees are encouraged to “get in touch with their inner Negro.” Despite attempts by the president and dean of the school to stop the party, it happens anyway and white students come dressed up in the most demeaning and stereotypical black roles. As administrators are wont to do they shut down the party while insisting to alumni and donors that there is “no race problem at Winchester.” Denial and suppression have all too often been the tactics of the Baby Boomer generation when it comes to things racial.

What I appreciated about the film is how it depicts the current Millennial generation’s struggle to understand the dynamics of racism in the 21st century. I disagree with Roger Ebert who wants to avoid the whole focus on race “because it is so exhausting.” As one who spends a great deal of time with this generation and teach a class on Race and Ethnic Relations, I found that the movie helped me articulate some of the generational differences between my perspective on race and that of my students. Millennials have a cursory knowledge of the history racism in our country, and in my course when they are confronted with that history, they are blown away by the way that history informs interactions today.  They want to think of themselves as post racial, but when events like Ferguson or Trayvon Martin’s murder occur, they revert back to the angry activism of the 60’s, yet without a clear focus. While it is true this generation, especially those in higher education, have had far more casual interaction across racial lines than their  Baby Boomer parents, they feel no need to deal with or even talk about race issues. Yet below the surface, both Black and White students have many fears, questions and uncertainties, and don’t often know where to go for answers.

I would love to use this film as a starting point for discussion in my course, because it shows that the deepest power of racism is its influence on how we view ourselves and how we see the racial “others.” Some respond to this power to shape identity with denial, others with fear, others with hopelessness and others with anger. That is what comes through so clearly in this film.

Were I to have had input in the film I would have wanted to have more racial diversity than simply Black and White; Asian and Latino students make a temporary appearance, but the film does not break away from the Black-White polarity that shapes so many discussions around race. Other racial/ethnic groups experience racism too, but in ways unique to their experience and background. Secondly, I would have liked to have seen the same diversity portrayed among the White students as the Black students. Just like the Blacks in the film, my experience is that Whites have varying degrees of awareness and willingness to confront the reality of racism in our day. Like many Blacks they want to believe that we are past needing to deal with racism, yet when confronted with racism’s reality, they don’t know how to respond constructively.

However, I think the film’s purpose was to show that while in one sense civil rights for Blacks have come a long way (otherwise they would not have been at such a prestigious university), the spoken and unspoken barriers of racial discrimination still continue to confront this Millennial generation, and like those before them, both Blacks and Whites have their own challenges to overcome as we move toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community.

This is a  film I would like to see again. I felt the nuances and subtleties of racism in our era are beautifully captured, and as such, I am sure there is much I missed. However, what I did take from the film has had me thinking all this past week. So in my mind it is worth seeing again.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Commonwealth of NRA (or Marcellus, Comcast, etc.)

This past week Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law House Bill #80 (The Firearms Preemption Legislation bill) which was back by the National Rifle Association (NRA), who called it the “strongest firearms preemption statute in the country.” Essentially the law allows pro-gun organizations like the NRA to sue local municipalities that pass laws which the NRA deems obstructing the gun ownership and use rights of local citizens. In reality the law was more symbol than substance, as local municipalities like Philadelphia, which have passed laws limiting the number of handguns and individual could purchase at any one time, have been blocked by the State government from enacting those laws, since the state maintains jurisdiction over all firearms legislation in the Commonwealth. However, the symbolism of this law should not be overlooked, for in signing this bill, the State Legislature and Governor Corbett have given the pro-gun lobby the right to punish and harass whoever they want with the state’s blessing. As one of the most powerful and wealthy lobbying groups in the country, it essentially communicates that these lobby groups run the state, not the citizens who live there and vote.

In this blog I have long and often bemoaned the undue influence corporate and special interest lobbying groups hold over the democratic process in this country, be it guns, insurance companies, weapons manufacturers, or just wealthy donors. However, HB 80 takes this practice to a new level in that it puts it out there publicly, essentially saying no matter what citizens want in their local community or their state in regards to gun legislation, the NRA gets its way. This week the NRA is the culprit, next week it might be the gas companies who get huge tax breaks mining the Marcellus Shale region or Comcast that wants to control the airwaves and the Internet, or some other special interest group with undue influence. With regard to HB 80 what is sad is that while polls consistently show overwhelming support for tighter restrictions on the purchase and use of firearms, the House members voted over 2-1 in favor of the bill. So one can legitimately wonder who is being represented. Parenthetically, I want to commend my own representative, Rep. William Adolph, a Republican leader in the House, for voting “Nay”; there are some people with courage, but not enough.

As this bill was working its way through the Pennsylvania legislature, I was also taking note of the huge protests taking place on the other side of the world in Hong Kong. Thousands of young people in the city have taken to the streets to protest the process by which candidates for elective office are chosen in that supposedly democratic protectorate. A local election commission receives petitions for those wanting to run, and then decides on the candidates who will be put on the ballot; but here’s the catch: because of Hong Kong’s inclusion in China, those candidates must be approved by the national government in Beijing (which by the way is very non-democratic). That is why the students have taken to the streets; they want a real vote, not a slate of candidates predetermined and vetted by the powers that be. When pressed as to why he objected to the protestors’ demand, the mayor of Hong Kong said that open democracy would mean that people “who earn less the $1800/month” (about 50% of the population) might vote for candidates and policies that would cut into the power and influence of the wealthiest and powerful people in Hong Kong. (Hmmm – sound familiar?)

While our political leaders tout the values of democracy, even to the point of wanting to export that system to developing countries, they cave in or even worse, actively promote a system where the vast majority of people are ignored in favor of those with deep pockets. On Tuesday, I will go to the polls and vote, but I must say as time goes on I feel my vote matters less and less, unless and until we elect representatives who have the courage and conviction to actually believe in democracy, and listen to the people they are supposed to represent.

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).

Monday, August 18, 2014

From Ferguson to Philly to Williamsport

Over the past week or so I have been holding four seemingly unrelated events together in my mind because in a strange way they seem to capture the essence of racial politics in our country today: the ongoing conflict and grief in Ferguson, MO over the shooting of an unarmed African-American boy Michael Brown by a  local white police officer; the shooting of a seventeen year old African American boy  by another African American young man as the former was coming out of a concert for peace on Wednesday, August 13 in Philadelphia; the ongoing financial crisis facing the Philadelphia public schools due to the Pennsylvania State Legislature cold-hearted unwillingness to give the schools  the funding they need; and finally the Taney Dragons Little League team from Philadelphia who are currently playing in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.

In  Ferguson, the more information that comes out, the more it appears that the death of Michael Brown was a case of a policeman venting his racial hatred at an innocent young man. Not that Brown was without fault; he can be seen on video tape from a store where he brazenly took something without paying. Yet when confronted by the police he was unarmed and the autopsy indicates he was killed execution style. Were this an isolated incident, the reaction might seem out of proportion, but the rage and anguish in the black community of Ferguson and across the country speaks to legacy of slavery, lynching and racial violence that continues to afflict and murder young black men in this nation.

Yet as my friend Gwen Ragsdale, curator of the Lest WeForget Slavery Holocaust Museum, an institution dedicated to telling the story of African slavery and its continuing effects on communities today, has always told the groups I have brought to the museum, “While the white man for centuries committed violence against us, now we are doing to ourselves.” That is why the shooting at the peace conference is so horrific. Not only is there tragic irony in the event, but it demonstrates yet again how poverty, racism and violence mixed together create a volatile mix that leads young black men killing each other in so many communities across the nation. The legacy of racial hatred seen in Ferguson has now been internalized such that statistically speaking I as a white man am safer in many black communities than black and Latino men who live there.

Yet the ongoing financial crisis facing the Philadelphia Public schools illustrates how this legacy of racism is not only seen in horrific acts such as mentioned in Ferguson and Philly, but is also seen in laws and policies of a government that promises fairness and equality for all and yet in reality practices equity for some and injustice for others. Were the children and grandchildren of the legislators assigned to the Philadelphia public schools, in one week sufficient funding and more would be provided. Yet hiding behind the veil of seeking a “balanced budget” that balances itself on the backs of the poor to serve the needs of the corporate elites and the wealthy, these legislators allow the city schools to languish with insufficient funds. This is institutional racism in action, a legacy that goes back to the era of Jim Crow, redlining and educational segregation. Moreover, the inadequacy of the educational system contributes to a 50% dropout rate, many of whom end up involved in street violence as was seen at the peace conference. The “school-to-prison-pipeline” is alive and well, and not coincidentally in Pennsylvania, the prisons get financial increases while the schools get little more than crumbs.

It is a pretty bleak picture, but that is why I need to bring into focus the Taney Dragons, a team from Philadelphia playing in Williamsport at the Little League World Series. The Dragons are a multi-racial, cross-city collection of kids who love baseball, play it well and in so doing have captured the heart of the city and to a degree a nation.  When I watch the Dragons, I think therein lies our hope. The hope is in the fact that despite the violence on their streets and the stress in their school system, these kids have come together to play some high quality baseball. More than that, they embody what a truly equitable, democratic, multiracial, multicultural society should be. According to Little League rules, every player on a team must play and have at least one at bat in every game; and at least in the Dragons case, all seem to have contributed to the team’s success. While the media has focused on Mone Davis, a thirteen year old girl with a 70+ mph fastball, what has impressed me is how well these kids play together. And Mone herself, when she is asked a question, always refers back to the team, and not herself as an individual.

I am saddened and sickened by the events in Ferguson, I grieve the young men of color who see their lives only ending either in death or prison, I am outraged at the intransigence of the Pennsylvania legislators who will not release the funds to assure Philadelphia school children have a quality education; but I revel in the hope provided by the Taney Dragons. Just like the beloved community that Dr. King often spoke of, the Dragons remind me of what it is we struggle and pray for – a world free of hatred, racism, violence and injustice – a world where all contribute and all are equally part of the team we call society.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

A Walk in the Woods (with apologies to Bill Bryson)

Every summer I try to climb a mountain. Some years it is questionable that what I have climbed can actually be called a “mountain” but most years I do get to some sort of high place that has a “Mount” in front of it or “Mountain” behind it. I am what my college roommate Keith McCafferty likes to call an “oh wow, the mountain” kind of guy. While most the people in my area of the East Coast like to flock to the beach for R&R, I would much prefer the rugged terrain of the wooded high places. There is something about mountains that inspires, challenges, and renews me. This a throwback to a legacy of mountain-top experiences – the Ten Commandments were delivered on Mt. Sinai; Jesus was transfigured on a mountain; the Dalai Lama first ruled in the mountain country of Tibet; even my high school song hero, John Denver, sang about a “Rocky Mountain High”. One of my favorite passages from the Bible is Psalm 121 which says “I look to the hills, where does my help come from, it comes for the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Yes, there is something about mountains that energizes and refreshes me.

For me hiking in the mountains calls to something deep in my spirit. First, there is the physical task of
climbing over rocks and roots to get to an outcropping where I can see the valleys below and the hills beyond. Second, there is the mental challenge of fighting the urge to quit, when the physical challenge becomes too much. A few years ago I was climbing a steep boulder field on an ascent to Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and I thought I couldn’t go any further; it seemed too difficult, but I pushed on thru and made it to the summit. Finally, there is the spiritual clarity that comes when you realize that it is just you and nature going at it in some sort of primordial way; it as if the Spirit of the mountain connects with my inner being. I can understand why so often the Native American vision quest occurs in a high and remote place; you meet yourself in a way that is not possible many other places.

So this summer, while on vacation in Maine, I decided to tackle Ragged Mountain, a small outcropping on a ridge outside of Rockport, ME; not exactly the Rockies or the Alps or Mt. Kathadin, but a sometimes steep 2.5 mile climb that beckoned to me. I like to go with others if I can, but this year I had no takers, so this was a solo trek. After about a 30 minute drive from the Maine shore where we had been staying, I came to the trailhead, and entered into a tree-covered path that led over a stream and eventually began to climb at a fairly steep incline. Fortunately, the ascent was not too long or arduous and  I made the five mile round trip in about 3 hours (with time for some good views and lunch on the peak). I did not see any other person or wild life but was treated by wild blueberries near the summit.  To top it off it was a perfect day for hiking: temperature in the 70’s, low humidity, and partly cloudy; warm enough to work up a sweat, but not wear you out.

While most think of the ascent as the challenging part of a mountain hike, for me it is the trek down that I have always found most difficult. I have twisted more ankles and gotten blisters on toes more often on the descent than the climb up. That was definitely the case on this time. My weak ankles (having sprained each about 20 times over the course of several decades) and pre-arthritic knees,  made each step down more painful than all the steps going up. Furthermore, for some reason, I find following the path down more difficult than going up, so I am always indebted to the markers and cairns that my way; without them I might get hopelessly lost.   My old roommate, Keith, sees them as an unnecessary crutch, but crutch or not, I would still be wandering in the wilderness were it not for those markers. Despite these mental and physical challenges , I made it down safe and sound;  it was a day well spent and my spirit was revived.

Each year the climb gets a little more difficult, particularly the descent, but each summer I set out again to find my mountain.  If the opportunity presents itself I may go find a mountain again this summer or fall, and certainly again next year. There is just something about the mountains that draws me on.

Bill Bryson chronicled his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail in A Walk in the Woods. For Bryson, like me, it was what happened along the journey that was more significant than the destination itself.  While reaching a summit is rewarding, the blessing comes in the process of climbing. Several years ago while hiking around Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I met a 70+ old woman hiking that rugged terrain. I decided then and there, I wanted to still be hiking the mountains when I got to be her age. I am a lot closer to that point today than I was back then, and God-willing I still be able to walk the hills, and continue to be renewed by their unique calling to my spirit.