Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Tamir Rice and Institutional Racism

Yesterday, it was reported that the grand jury examining the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice chose not to indict the officer who shot the boy. There is a clear pattern: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Brandon Tate-Brown, Sandra Bland and many more. Unarmed African Americans killed by police officers whose killers are not indicted. What is wrong with this picture?

I teach a course on Race and Ethnic Relations and the definition we use for institutional racism is as follows: A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. I stress with my students that the way to identify institutional racism is not in the intent of the actors involved but rather in the outcomes or results of their actions. Do they indicate a pattern of outcomes that reveal racism or discrimination against a particular group of people? Had the victims been white would the system be so quick to exonerate the police officers involved from their murderous actions?

I was asked recently if I thought that overall life for people of color had improved since the Civil Rights era. My answer was simply “look at the evidence.” We are as segregated a society as we were in the 1960’s. Schools that have a majority of students of color are across the board under-resourced and low performing. Jails are disproportionately populated by people of color. As Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy  have clearly shown people of color are given harsher sentences for the same crimes committed by whites. Look at what has happened to the law enforcement officers who killed Tamir Rice and the others. Look at how Muslims are being blamed for the actions of a few when white males have committed most of the large active shooter incidents like Newtown and Charleston. Is it safer and healthier to be a person of color in 2015 than 1965? The evidence suggests otherwise.

When a system routinely allows police officers to killed unarmed civilians, the problem is not just a “few bad cops.” Over the years I have known several police officers, and by and large they have entered their profession because they want to give back to their communities. They generally have been highly ethical and dedicated individuals. A system that turns such people into killers is not just about the people in the system, but the system itself. I can only hope that there are critically thinking people within law enforcement and the criminal justice system who are saying “What is wrong with this picture?” If not, there are lots of us not part of that system who are saying: the system must change.

Yesterday, members of REALJustice, a local Philadelphia affiliate of the Black Lives Matter movement held a demonstration at Broad and Erie Streets to call attention to the Tamir Rice decision. At least one person was arrested. Neither the arrest nor the demonstration was reported by the major news outlets. However this movement is the Civil Rights Movement re-emerged. This movement of mostly young people, like its forbear the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960’s is calling our attention to the ongoing institutional racism in our midst, and I for one support, applaud and join them in their efforts. This movement will not be stopped until real justice and real change is brought about. Institutional racism may be the norm, but it can no longer be unchallenged or allowed to continue to kill innocent people.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Greeting - A Year of Transitions

Christmas 2015

Dear Friends,

This past year has been a year of transition for the Boyd clan. Perhaps the most significant transition occurred in July when Cynthia retired after 21 years at Family and Community Service of Delaware County where she had been a social worker serving people with AIDS. Over her time there she witnessed a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS go from being a certain death sentence in the early 1990’s to a chronic condition that people could survive with proper medication and personal care. Since July she has been able to go to the gym regularly, reconnect with friends and enjoy hobbies like knitting and sewing she had set aside for a time.

Drick also has been going through a significant transition as Eastern University where he has worked for the last 18 years. Eastern went through a significant downsizing and reorganization. While he maintained his role as a professor and chair of the Urban Studies department, the increased demands created by the loss of staff has been very stressful. However, on a positive note, he saw the publication of his book White Allies in the Struggle for Racial Justice (Orbis, 2015). The book, which chronicles the lives of 17 Whites who worked for racial justice through U.S. history, has been positively received and opened up some new opportunities.

Hannah and Bill have grown into their life as homeowners in Lansdale, PA having made several improvements to their house. Hannah continues to work as a special education teacher, while Bill continues in the film industry. His biggest project was working on the movie “Creed” starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, which was filmed entirely in the Philadelphia area.
Esther and her partner Tom relocated this summer from Washington, D.C to Chicago where Esther now works for Interfaith Youth Core, and organizations that works for cooperation among people of different faith traditions. Esther loves her job developing curriculum to be used in college classrooms. Esther and Tom also added Beau, a Great Dane puppy to their household. Still looking for permanent work Tom has kept busy as an Uber driver.

After over a year working with children in the woods with Trackers, Phoebe now works as a barrista in Portland, OR. We had the opportunity to visit Phoebe in her new hometown this summer, also spending time at a family reunion in Bend, OR with Deb, Perrin and their horses, as well as a week on the Oregon Coast with Wint and family.  Oregon is a beautiful part of the world, and we can see why Phoebe loves it, though we wish she was not all the way across the country.

While there is much in our world that is frightening and frustrating, we are thankful that our family is doing well amidst all these transitions, and wish you all a Merry Christmas and Blessed 2016!


Drick and Cynthia (& Sadie)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

After San Bernadino, Take a Look in the Mirror

What do the following incidents have in common?

Dec 14, 2012 – Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT, lone shooter, 20 year white male kills 26 people (20 children & six adults) with a gun purchased legally by the shooter’s mother

June 17, 2015 – Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, lone shooter, 21 year old white male kills 9 people (6 men, three women) with a legally purchased gun

October 2, 2015 – Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, OR, lone shooter, 26 year old white male kills 10 people and injured 7 more with a legally purchased gun

November 27, 2015 – Planned Parenthood Clinic, Denver, CO, lone shooter, white male, 59 year old white male, kills 3 people, injures 11 others with a legally purchased gun

December 2, 2015 – Inland Regional Center, San Bernadino, CA, two shooters, husband, age 28 and wife, age 27 of Pakistani descent, killed 14 people and wounded 17 with legally purchased guns

All of these tragic incidents involved 1 or 2 individuals, all but one under the age of 30, shooting into a crowd of innocent people with a legally purchased gun. Yet only one is called an “act of terror.” The other four are referred to “active shooter incidents.” 

In 2013 the FBI published a study of “active shooter incidents” between 2000-2013. During that time there 160 incidents involving “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area” where 3 or more people were killed. In those 160 "active shooter incidents" 486 people were killed and 557 people were wounded. The number of these incidents have accelerated since this study, and all of them had characteristics just like ones listed above.

Over the past several days I have been trying to wrap my head around the insanity not only of these mass shootings, but the way we talk about them. All of them are tragically sad. All of them involve innocent people dying needlessly violent deaths. Two things stand out to me.

First of all, by calling San Bernadino and not the other shootings an “act of terror” we encourage demagogues like Donald Trump to get air time saying travel restrictions on Muslims coming into the country. Statistically we would do better to detain white males already citizens of this country under 30 if we want to save lives.

Second, President Obama in his speech last Sunday night is right when he says we need to make it difficult for people to legally purchase assault style rifles. It only makes sense. All the people injured or killed would be alive were it not for legally purchased guns.  Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz called Pres. Obama’s statement “political” but a day after the San Bernadino shooting Cruz held a rally at an Iowa gun range saying we stop ‘bad guys” by using our own guns; so who is using the shooting for political gain? At least President Obama was proposing action by Congress to restrict access to the kind of guns used in these mass shootings.Ted Cruz seems to be proposing a mass shootout.

Then of course, we have Jerry Fallwell, Jr, president of Liberty University, a conservative Christian school, propose to his students they start bringing guns to school [Note to self: Steer clear of the unlikely event of being invited to speak or visit large university in Lynchburg, VA]. We have Wayne La Pierre, executive vice president of the NRA who proposed following the Sandy Hook killings that armed police be present in every school and teachers be trained to use guns. We have many states like Florida and Texas that pass laws allowing individuals to “conceal and carry” their guns in public places. Yes that makes sense, let’s just make it easier than it already is to bring guns into public places with lots of innocent people to shoot at.

Because so many of these mass shootings have occurred in educational settings, I have been forced to think about how I would handle a shooting incident in my school or classroom. My first thought would be to get people to safety as quickly as possible, and then the second thing would be to get the gun out of the hands of the shooter. So I find myself wondering, why do we make it so easy for the gun to get into the hand of the shooter in the first place?

Are we so blind as a nation that we cannot see that WE are our greatest security threat, not ISIS. Recently the New York Times published a report, detailing how all of the shooters in these mass shootings secured their guns through legal means.  Interestingly in the FBI study mentioned above the fact that guns were obtained legally is not even mentioned, it is assumed. 

If we are so concerned about terrorism, first of all let’s not use a euphemism like “active shooter incident” when white people commit the crime but terror when it happens to be someone who practices the Islamic faith. A few weeks I visited the memorial to the Oklahoma City Bombings in 1995. At that time our "sworn enemy" was Libya, so it was assumed the bombing was done by a Libyan "terrorist." Turned out it was Timothy McVeigh and a bunch of other white guys who pulled it off. Islam isn't our enemy, self-styled killers are, regardless of ideology, religion or ethnicity.

Secondly, then let’s make it more difficult for people to legally obtain weapons. If you want to stop a killing and you know a clear consistent fact, it only makes sense to work to prevent the easy access to guns. This just  makes sense - why is that so hard to grasp?

Third, let us take a look at ourselves and the cowboy, shoot-em-up culture we have created that is so out of step with the rest of the civilized world. There are more killings in any metropolitan area in the U.S. than occur in  any other country in the world. The Second Amendment may give people a right to bear arms, but it is not a right without restrictions. Moreover, our movies, our gaming industry, our militarism, our way of viewing what strength and machismo look like all support this violent culture of ours. We have reaped the seeds of our own inner turmoil and external violence. The madness starts at home. It starts by looking in the mirror.

I haven’t got a lot of answers to my questions, but these things seem clear.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Advent Meditation: Choosing the Darkness

“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again”
 (‘Sounds of Silence,’ Simon and Garfunkel)

Advent began this past Sunday, November 29. Traditionally Advent is a time of waiting and longing for the coming of Christ both in his birth, and in the promise restoration at the end of history.  Simultaneously Advent is a time of contemplating the suffering and what Paulo Freire called our human “unfinishedness” and our hope for wholeness.

The prophet Isaiah expressed this idea of waiting in the midst of struggle in words that our central to the Advent theme:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9.2; Matthew 4.16):

The focus of Advent is usually on the light, with darkness as the backdrop, but this Advent I have chosen to focus on the darkness.

Deadly violence in Paris, Lebanon, Mali, Denver and San Bernadino have reminded of us of the deranged hatred that is racking our globe. Police brutality against young people of color: Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless others - have given rise to a movement calling for justice in our criminal justice system. The violence of young people against each other, the shootings in Emanuel AME church in Charleston seem senseless. Republican candidates fight over who can degrade undocumented immigrants more viciously. The governor and legislature of Pennsylvania wrangle for six months over a state budget while low income school districts and non-profits serving our most vulnerable citizens go unfunded. Everywhere we look there is unspeakable callousness, deep suffering and uncontrollable grief.

Beyond these widespread and well-known incidents, there are the personal struggles. Two weeks ago 45 people at Eastern University where I teach were given termination notices because of financial shortfalls, and treated in ways that seemed callous and cold. I feel overcome with a mixture of sadness, confusion, and loss.  

In all of this I find myself in what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Thomas Moore describes the dark night as “a period of sadness, trial, loss, frustration or failure that is so disturbing and long lasting” it that  can “[make] you question the very meaning of life.” According to Moore, we don’t choose our dark night, they are a gift and “[our] job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold.”( Dark Nights of the Soul, p. xiii)

The dark night is a time of introspection, of lament and ultimately of inner transformation. We let go of our need to control, to have the answers and the belief we will come out on top. Instead we take note of our emotions, we pay attention to our dreams, and we listen for voice of Someone  or Something beneath and beyond the darkness that speaks into our lives. The darkness is a sort of liminal space, a cocoon, a time of waiting, watching, and wondering if any sense of direction or answers will come. There is no promise that there will be answer; there may be only deeper questions.

Erin Thomas, a former student of mine and a blogger, notes this about the first Christmas: “[P]eople were longing without certain hope of any Christmas at all. There was no knowledge of a Saviour, no expectation that a pregnant virgin was going to give birth to a world-changer, and certainly no thought that God was going to intervene out of Palestine.” They were in that liminal space, the place of unknowing, the place of darkness.” Erin goes on: “Will we enter into this darkened season with such humility? Do we dare? Dare.We must."

So I dare this Advent to focus on and live into the darkness. I choose to listen, to struggle, to sit without expectation or foreknowledge. To simply be in that place called the dark night of the soul.

The poet Ranier Marie Rilke put it this way:

“Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength
(“Sonnets to Orpheus II”, 29)

Advent offer us both light and darkness. I choose to focus on the darkness.