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.