Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Journeying from Silence to Empathy

In the latest edition of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has an exceptional cover story, "My People, Black & White," in which he recounts his recent journey toward empathy across the color line. An unlikely collaboration between Dreher--the White conservative Catholic--and the Black actor Wendell Pierce set the stage for his transformation. Part of his journey led him toward the hidden history of his place of birth. He writes,
I was born in 1967 and went to integrated public schools in my small Louisiana town. Nobody talked about what things were like under segregation. Looking back, it’s bizarre how we kids—we white kids, anyway—were raised with near-total ignorance of the world into which we were born, a world that was passing away even then. We knew that segregation had happened, of course, but we only heard about Jim Crow and civil rights on television, and it was easy to believe all that was a long time ago and far away.
My memory of my hometown did not include Klansmen, racial terror, or any of the things that were common throughout the Deep South. So you can imagine my shock when, shortly after I returned to my hometown in 2011, a white friend passed on to me an Ebony article from 1964 that described the scene outside of the West Feliciana Parish courthouse on October 17, 1963, when the Rev. Joseph Carter became the first black parish resident to register to vote in 61 years.
It was ugly, and that night ended with Klan terror. The sheriff and the registrar of voters quoted in the story speaking with racist gruffness to the old black preacher are now long dead, but they were men whose names I grew up respecting. The courthouse where a white mob cursed the blacks was on the other side of my backyard fence.
All this went down only four years before I was born, and I never knew it. I think it safe to say that virtually no whites of my generation know this history—and that is no accident. Ours is a small place, and there can be no doubt that whoever was under those white sheets would not be a stranger to me. These were—are—my people.
A decade ago, some sympathetic whites in my town undertook an oral history project of the civil rights movement in our parish. They met with only modest success. “It was so hard to get people to talk about it,” said one of the organizers, still puzzled after all these years. 
There are two key points here that only became clear to Dreher in his middle age. The first is that he was born into a world he knew nothing about. The second is that his ignorance was not accidental; it was imposed. To these two insights we may add a third: his story is not unique. For millions of White Americans, Dreher's story is our story. A deep and abiding silence covers our own history. 

In his brilliant reflection on power and the production of history, the late Michel Trouillot explained how we ought to think about silence. He wrote, "the presences and absences embodied in sources...are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such, they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one 'silences' a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing.

We know that stories are not really stories unless they are told. And if a story is to continue from one generation to the next, it must be passed down. Silences are not so different. Silence is not the absence of a story; it is the presence of a different kind of story. In the spaces between what is said, we learn lessons that are likely to be more powerful than the most exciting tales explicitly told. In the spaces between what is said, we unconsciously absorb our most basic beliefs about the world. Those spaces are not naturally occurring; they are carved, hollowed out, crafted.  

How do you hear silence? How do you see absence? These questions go a long way toward explaining the power and seeming naturalness of the kinds of silences Dreher writes about. He was born during the civil rights movement and yet knew nothing about it or why it was necessary. How could this be? Many of us are unaware of these silences because they only become apparent under some kind of outside pressure. In Dreher's hometown, the silences were exposed when well-meaning people thought it would be nice to do an oral history of the movement. Why was it so hard to get people to talk? One begins to ask oneself uncomfortable questions. Don't the elderly long to impart their wisdom and experience to the next generation? What kind of pasts make people reluctant to speak? Is silence imposed on pasts about which we are proud, or those of which are are ashamed? 

We may see the outlines of these silences in other subtle ways. A stray comment here, an awkward pause in conversation there, may hint at what is lurking in those spaces.  As young people, we may have made an innocent comment about something we learned at school and then watched in surprise as tension filled the living room. We may have been excited to share some new understanding we had gained, only to find that sharing it only produced misunderstanding and hurt among White friends. We may have learned that some things are just best not talked about. When it comes to race, we may have learned that a metaphor that would ordinarily indicate impairment--colorblindness--somehow represented enlightened thought.

This is not a trivial concern. These silences are destructive. They lead directly to the dehumanization of people of color. As Dreher found, silence is intimately connected to our lack of empathy for the people White supremacy has harmed. When the story of White supremacy is carved out, expunged, silenced in our own lives, we necessarily deny the stories of those who have been oppressed by it. Many people of color remember times they shared their experiences only to have White friends (or "friends") discount their stories. And why? Because for us to truly hear the story would require a reorienting of our own stories, a confrontation with our own silences so dearly held.

James Baldwin was one of many Black writers who declared that of all White supremacy's victims, Whites themselves were perhaps the most pitiable. To be sure, they gained some material advantages. But White supremacy left them mentally and morally impoverished. Baldwin spoke of White Americans as a class of people whose entire "system of reality" had been "corrupted" by their inability to make peace with their history. 

That's what these silences do. We're nurtured on them until reality itself becomes an affront to us. There is much sordid complexity in America's history of White supremacy. Yet there is much that is not complicated at all. Why, then, are we so confused, so alienated from our past? Silences have been taught so well that many of us are nearly unable to hear the very words that are being said when a conversation turns to the subject of race. I mean this literally. On more than one occasion White people have broached the possibility with me that I either am or may appear to be anti-White. They were not being mean. They were expressing innocent confusion. And the silences were so formative in their lives that they lacked a mental framework to make distinctions between phrases like "White people" and "White supremacy" and "individual" and "systemic." Speaking about these things exposed the silence and turned reality itself into a source of threat.

The silencing of our history makes empathy across the color line a nearly impossible task. It makes us incapable of understanding the world around us. We see the average White family with ten to twenty times the wealth of the average Black family, and we can't explain it without reference to vague intimations of racialized work ethics. We see how different the average Black and White neighborhood look, and racist myth is the only explanatory tool we have available. We see disparities in crime rates and fret about "black on black crime" as if it is a function of Blackness itself.

We can stay amid the silences, or we can pursue empathy; we cannot have both.  

I worry this is all too esoteric, but I don't know how to address it more clearly. There's an old Christian saying: you don't realize temptation is there until you try to resist it. In a similar way, the silences seem invisible until you resist them. Once you see them, there's no going back. You find out that the dehumanization of African Americans is not just something that regretfully occurs sometimes. It is normative and routine. It is pervasive. (I believe close reading of polling data backs up this point.) Explaining its persistence returns us to another of Baldwin's vital points: if Black people move out of their "place" in my imagination, then my conceptions of self and nation are uprooted too. If Black people are not what we thought they were, then America is not what we thought it was. 

We don't even want to think about how deeply rooted this is. It recalls Walter Johnson's argument in his book on the antebellum slave market. In the course of his research, Johnson was struck by how often enslavers "represented themselves to one another by reference to their slaves." Frederick Douglass, in his first autobiography, remarked upon the perverse pride enslaved people might take in their owners. Less understood is what Johnson was getting at--the dependence of the enslaver on the enslaved for his (it was usually a he) very identity. They lived through their slaves. One thinks of the worries of southern diarist Mary Chestnut on the eve of the Civil War: "Are they [her enslaved people] stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?" This was more than a technical question about the likelihood of an escape attempt. It was a question about herself.

Let's wrap this up. 

As Dreher and Pierce collaborated they shared their stories. They talked about their family histories. Dreher was surprised by how much they had in common, but he noticed that Peirce's family had faced oppression that was unlike anything his own family experienced. It was around that time that he became aware of how much he didn't know about the place he grew up and the people who lived there. A key moment came when he spent a day with Pierce's uncle, Lloyd Edwards. Hearing his brutal stories, Dreher finally crossed over the line, trading silence for empathy:
At one point, I blurted across the dining table, “Lloyd, how on earth are you not angry all the time?”
No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought: oh.
In that unguarded moment, a lot about our country’s life that had been obscured from my vision became clear...
Has that same question ever spontaneously risen in you? If not, don't feel bad. But realize that empathy is not won cheaply, and committing to the journey is the most important thing you can do. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

How Has Ferguson Changed You?

One year ago, Michael Brown was killed. I believe we have yet to see the most profound consequences of that day, but the past twelve months have brought other wrenching events, new discussions, and policy shifts. For better or worse, Americans have changed. The polling tells us that Americans of all backgrounds have significantly different views on racism and inequality than we did one year ago.

How have your views changed?

It's worth thinking about. Whatever knowledge and assumptions you carried on August 9, 2014, the 365 days since then have provided a lot of new information. Only the most foolish or inattentive among us would not have been changed in some way. Here's how Ferguson and the past year changed me.*

1) Ferguson gave me permission to protest. 

Like many Americans, on August 8, 2014, I knew something was horribly wrong. Indeed, I had learned about it and tried to live it for over six years. But to be honest, I was quiescent. I had settled into a relative silence. I had given a paper about the roots of racial inequality and segregation at a conference in Milwaukee earlier that year. During the Q and A someone asked me what was to be done about it now. I forlornly said that the only hope I could see was a mass social movement to shift the boundaries of what was politically possible. It seemed a small hope indeed.

By August of 2014, I had spent three years in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. I felt disconnected, and as so often happens, my deep-seated racism continued to resurface. I would question my beliefs. Maybe I was making too big a deal about this racial inequality stuff? Maybe I was blowing it out of proportion? Maybe all the people who indicated to me that I had gone off the rails were right?

Michael Brown was shot 9 days after we moved to Philadelphia. I would have experienced that moment differently had I still been living in that White suburb in Ohio. But my new surroundings and the emergence of street protest in the face of militarized police fortified me. It told me that I wasn't crazy. It dramatized what I had learned to be true but sometimes found hard to believe. It gave me permission to protest. It made it ok for even a mild-mannered guy like me to be on the street in a supporting role.

2) Ferguson taught me the importance of street protest.

Before August 9, I thought that street protest was for the 1960s and we had entered a new era in which other tactics were necessary. There is a common belief among both White and Black Americans that racial discrimination or police behavior has grown worse in recent years. I'm quite sure that's not true. Instead, the demands Black Americans have been making for decades are finally drawing the attention of the nation. Street protest did that.

As with all these lessons, this insight was inseparable from my academic work during the past year. In William Chafe's classic study of Greensboro, North Carolina, Civilities and Civil Rights, he masterfully explores the power dynamics of White and Black Greensboro and the relation between them. He writes that the White elite operated with a powerful ideology, the "progressive mystique." This sensibility combined unfailing civility, faith in dialogue and reasoned discussion, paternal care for those less fortunate, and a respectable boosterism for a city that was invariably described as a place where "race relations" were good and everyone was making progress. For the White power structure of Greensboro, civility was more important than substantive action. Process was more important than outcome.

Black activists in Greensboro kept pushing against this progressive mystique, but were unheard. The rules of communication in Greensboro were such that Black complaints were invariably snuffed out. After all, they couldn't possibly be true: "race relations" were good, Whites were civil, and White elites supported Black institutions. What could be wrong?

Greensboro was of course where the sit-ins began in 1960 before spreading across the South. In Greensboro, massive street protest followed. Only the arrival of these street protests awakened White residents of Greensboro to the reality of Black dissatisfaction. No amount of civil dialogue did that. No amount of polite pleading. Only militant street protest, with the threat of outright violence and chaos, forced the White power structure to move.

3) Ferguson showed me the limits of moral persuasion. 

What was true in Greensboro remains too true today. Don't like the tactics of Black protesters? Don't like all the shouting and cursing and militancy? Maybe we should have listened years ago when Black leaders politely pointed out the scale of institutional racism and calmly proposed solutions. Militant protest is a form of communication. One of the only forms of Black communication most White Americans can hear.

Remember, most White Americans opposed the civil rights movement. Many celebrated when Dr. King was assassinated. The civil rights movement won its victories not only by moral persuasion, but by raising the cost of inaction so high that the White power structure was forced to act. Dr. King lived his final years as a reviled and unpopular figure. We're not trying to win a popularity contest. We're trying to win justice and freedom. And that means forcing a racist society to do what it doesn't want to do. 

4) Ferguson showed me the depths of White denial. 

Though the polls have moved in encouraging directions, we have also witnessed outright denial of reality from influential media figures, politicians, and the White public. One recent poll showed that a majority of Whites do not believe the justice system is biased. We've seen the denial expressed in more concrete form. In Cleveland, hundreds of White rallied to support the police after the murder of Tamir Rice. In Ferguson, millions of Whites believed the police behaved reasonably during protests. In Baltimore, the police alleged that gang members had called a truce to join together to target cops. Many of us knew intuitively right away that the charge was baseless. It didn't make sense. But it was widely reported by the media, raising tensions and White fears. It turned out to be a lie. Untold numbers of Americans have supported the Confederate flag. The ignorance our education system and racist culture impose make that position ordinary, but no less indefensible. In ways broader than the Confederate flag, Ferguson revealed the extent to which Americans do not want to know their history. From housing segregation to police brutality, we have an accessible history that tells us why things are the way they are. Yet the amnesia on offer from figures like O'Reilly and Limbaugh seems to be more popular.

5) Ferguson taught me to believe my experience and the experience of others pertaining to police forces.

In Chicago I had seen blatant racism from police officers first hand. I took it with a grain of salt. I certainly had a negative view of the police, but I couldn't imagine the scale of incompetence and institutional violence and racism that would be revealed in the year after Ferguson. I've become far more skeptical of public sector unions. Yet I also came to see the police not as particularly bad actors, but as the logical outgrowth of public wishes.

6) Ferguson showed me that asserting the full humanity of Black people is controversial in America.

This is the kind of claim that seems either obvious or absurd, depending on the reader. But to be around real Black people as neighbors and church members and friends is to realize that much of the White American imagination is dealing in abstractions. We substitute an inherited racist wisdom for real human contact. You see it in moments of high tension like Ferguson and Baltimore. Absurd rumors and fears fill the air, and White Americans find them plausible. But we don't want to know the truth. For if Black people are just people, then their oppressed state implicates the entire American social order. The White American imagination is malleable, insidious, and a source of deep comfort to millions of Americans.

*This post is about me. How Ferguson changed young Black people is much more important. I am writing about what I know, and I hope many others will reflect on their own experience. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Black Lives Matter." Can You Say It Without Equivocation?

Last weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley spoke at the progressive Netroot Nations conference. When dozens of Black activists all but took over the meeting, a flustered O'Malley tried to appear sympathetic and speak to their concerns. But he failed to understand the tenor of the moment. His declaration that “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” received a chorus of boos. O'Malley later apologized for his choice of words.

Yesterday, a reporter asked Jeb Bush if O'Malley should have apologized. Clearly exasperated, Bush rolled his eyes and declared, "No, for crying out loud." He went on, "We're so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying 'lives matter?' Life is precious. It's a gift from God. I frankly think that it's one of the most important values that we have. I know in the political context it's a slogan, I guess. Should he have apologized? No. If he believes that white lives matter, which I hope he does, then he shouldn't have apologized to a group that seemed to disagree with it. Gosh."

The tone of the two candidates (O'Malley contrite, Bush dismissive) reflects the differing political needs of their candidacies. As O'Malley tries to position himself as a viable challenger on Clinton's left, he can't afford to alienate the most significant progressive social movement of our era. In contrast, Bush can afford to be dismissive, knowing that a radical Black left is never going to be part of his coalition. More interesting than these partisan differences in coalition building is the common misunderstandings exhibited by the two candidates when confronted by the starkness of the phrase, "Black Lives Matter."

Had O'Malley possessed a cursory understanding of the movement and the rhetoric that has been deployed to resist it, he would have known that his generalizing statement would be received as an insult. In a vacuum, his words were literally true and unobjectionable. But meaning is always incomplete apart from context. O'Malley failed to read the context. For his part, Bush not only failed to read the context, but twisted the incident into a story of "political correctness." There was political correctness here, but it was in O'Malley's initial statement, not his apology. Bush failed to realize this. He assumed the worst possible interpretation of the phrase, claiming that Black protestors "seemed to disagree" with the idea that "white lives matter."

Let's assume that these candidates exemplify the misunderstandings of millions of ordinary Americans. These misconceptions expose people's prior notions of racism and American society. The controversy over the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is really a distillation of the broader debate between colorblind defenders of the status quo and those of us who want to tear down every form of systemic racism and White advantage. If you came into this past year believing that systemic racism is a real and urgent problem and Whiteness is advantaged in America, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" was intuitively understood. All you hear is an affirmation of human dignity and a positive stand against injustice.  But if you came into this year as a devotee of colorblindness and believe American society is basically fair, "Black Lives Matter" was either baffling or offensive. All you hear is an anachronistic affirmation of race-consciousness, or a statement that is demeaning to other groups.

I embraced the phrase because of its inherent righteousness. As an affirmation of the value of oppressed people, it is a deeply Christian phrase. I will continue to use it on that basis. But it is also useful in this respect: its blunt simplicity exposes people and takes them out of their comfort zones. When an explicitly Black-affirming message in response to anti-Black discrimination makes people uncomfortable, their strong attachment to colorblindness is revealed. (Why should we have a generalized colorblind response to specific racialized oppression?) When people cannot understand the phrase or perceive it as anti-white, they reveal their failure to understand the elementary facts about the structure of their society.

A lot of analogies have been thrown around in social media debates to try to help people who are confused by the phrase. But people are only confused about the phrase because they're confused about America. People who know a little bit about Myanmar would have little trouble understanding what it would mean for a Buddhist to declare, "Muslim Lives Matter." We intuitively understand that as a courageous and life-affirming statement. If an Iraqi Sunni stands up and declares, "Christian Lives Matter," we won't wonder if he still cares about Muslims. If a Rwandan Hutu says "Tutsi Lives Matter," we see reconciliation at work. If any of these oppressed groups themselves stand up and declare that their own lives matter, we do not think they are selfish or hateful toward other groups. In these contexts, we would recognize that an "All Lives Matter" response would range from irrelevant to reactionary.

This is only confusing in the United States because so many White Americans are in denial about the most basic contours of oppression and advantage in our country.  It ought not be hard to understand that people need to say Back Lives Matter for the same reason the civil rights generation had to say, "I am a man" and their children had to say "Black is beautiful." Statements that were banal on their surface became powerful and life affirming in the context of a White supremacist society that didn't acknowledge their truth.

In our America, where a majority of Whites continue to believe blatantly false claims about the supposed fairness of our country, we still need to say "Black Lives Matter." Those who are unwilling to join us are unlikely to be convinced, but at least they can be exposed.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

To Fight White Supremacy, Humanize White Supremacists

This week the Equal Justice Initiative released a compelling video tracing the history of racial oppression in the United States from slavery to mass incarceration. Vox passed it along yesterday with the headline, "Next time someone questions America's history of racism, show them this video." 

Actually, no, please don't. Besides the simplistic interpretations that are likely to give any historian heartburn, the video's artwork conveys a problematic message that is at cross-purposes with the Equal Justice Initiative's goals. (The art is otherwise extraordinary.)

Here are some screenshots from the video:

Black figures are rendered fully human, while most White figures range from cartoonish to animalistic. Ordinary White Americans do not see themselves in these figures, and there's no reason they should. The spoken message of the video (continuities in oppression across time) is completely undercut by the visual message. The images reinforce the essential myth of post-civil rights era America: that there is a vast gulf between the Jim Crow racial order and the colorblind racial order. Popular memory casts the years around 1964 not only as a transformative moment, but as an almost magical disjuncture--a point of rupture so profound that what came before no longer casts a shadow on what came after.

This myth rests on simple morality tales of Black heroes and White villains, as if oppression automatically ennobled Black people and turned White people into sadists. We don't remember the White supremacists who were brilliant thinkers with winsome personalities. In fact, we feel so threatened by history that we assume that last sentence is a contradiction in terms. We'd rather remember Ben Tillman and Bull Connor. It's easier that way; it shows how horrible things used to be and how far we've come.

But if we want to expose continuities in the history of White supremacy, we must dare to render White supremacists as fully human as the people they oppressed. If we don't do this, we implicitly accept the notion that people in the past were inexplicably monstrous. By definition, they become objects of merely academic interest, for we know that we are not monsters.

As long as we think that segregation didn't make sense--that White Americans were uniquely bad or foolish, that Jim Crow was absurd--we haven't understood our past and can't understand our place in the present. Racism has operated in American history less as an irrational prejudice than as a currency to access the hard stuff of houses, schools, health care, power, and money. It makes eminent sense; it is at once utterly ordinary and evil.

It is true that there are heroic and villainous figures in history. That's part of what makes history so compelling. But most of us are not heroic. Most of us are not unusually bad. Yet our popular memory has little room for ordinary people caught up in processes bigger than themselves. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said last week on twitter, focusing on whether ordinary White Confederates owned slaves is a little bit like our descendants asking us if we were oil drillers. Probably not, but we liked our cars. When it comes to the most profound forces shaping our lives, there's rarely an opt-out clause. From the beginning White supremacy has been written into American law. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the Dred Scott decision, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Plessy v. Ferguson, to the Immigration Act of 1924. White supremacy in American history has not been a mysterious accident, nor the result of the nefarious actions of a few malevolent people. Hundreds of millions of ordinary people have tried to function as best they could in a system of White supremacy. For many, that system was as unremarkable as is our stop at the gas station or use of oil-based plastics.

When we speak of the evil of the past, we can do so in a way that implicates us or comforts us. For those who seek justice in the present, the right choice is clear. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Confessions Of A Former Confederate

In a moment of heated debate, it is useful for me to step back and consider the myriad beliefs I hold that are incorrect, immoral, or just plain stupid. Of course, this is something close to an exercise in futility because I don't know what those misguided beliefs are. If I did, I suppose I wouldn't claim them as my own. Yet the mere admission--if sincerely contemplated--that such beliefs have no doubt found a home in me is a useful check on overweening pride and judgment of others. And I can go a step further. My current error may be extremely hard to discern, but I can see my past sins with relative clarity.

One of those sins is directly related to the debate over the Confederate flag. So let's have some real talk.

As a teenager, I was a devotee of the Confederacy. Call it my own peculiar brand of adolescent rebellion if you like. I devoured popular military histories of the Civil War, including Shelby Foote's monumental classic. I read the book precisely as Foote wrote it--lustily cheering for the underdogs (more about this in a moment). My favorite movie was Gettysburg, a sprawling epic that hit all the high notes of popular myth: the civil war as tragedy, of noble brothers bonded by valor, of invisible African Americans. I labored through a book purporting to show that the South did not secede because of slavery, and I prided myself on reading every word of what seemed to be a very academic book. I played the Civil War General computer game and enjoyed destroying the Yankees at Fredericksburg. I went to bed at night pondering what might have been if only Stonewall Jackson had not ridden out in the dark that fateful night to be shot by his own men. Ahh, the possibilities!

As a 17-year old taking an English 101 class at the local community college, I declared that the historical figure I would most like to meet was Robert E. Lee--not only because of his military prowess, but because of his extraordinary character. I evangelized to my friends, explaining to them that the war was not about slavery and that the South was in the right. I lamented the expansion of federal power that the war wrought. A couple years ago, I found my notes from a 2004 sociology class. I was the hapless Confederate roped into a group project on racial disparities in modern America. Scrawled across the pages of evidence gathered by my classmates were my words: "Not true!" "False!" I knew my classmates were wrong not because I gathered counter-evidence, but because they had to be wrong.

Though I myself did not wear or fly the Confederate flag, its absence was by circumstance rather than conviction. Being a collector of books rather than memorabilia, I simply never got around to buying one.

We can talk about all sorts of reasons I may have had so many mistaken beliefs, but the real root of it is deceptively simple: In my mind, Black people were abstract. They were something less than fully human. I gave intellectual consent to their existence without any difficulty. But they were people to be talked about more than talked to. They were people on the news (and it usually wasn't flattering). They did not sweat and bleed and dream and hope in precisely the same way I did. They appeared in history as disembodied slaves. Not enslaved people, just slaves. They appeared as the aggregate labor force of King Cotton, not as the stooped backs and bloodied hands picking that cotton. They were "servants" and slaves with a better diet than many European peasants (this was, for some reason, a very important point). They were not parents and children separated by sale; they were not liars and truth-tellers and heroes and failures and murderers and saints and all the other things that human beings are. Mostly, they just weren't in my picture at all. My enthusiasm for the underdogs extended not to the real underdogs, but their oppressors.

There is a rather simpler way of talking about all this. I was racist. (And, no doubt, still am by the way). But to simply say that I was a racist is to miss the nuances of what this racism consisted of. It was not, in fact, animus toward Black people. (True to form, I could honestly say at the time that my best friend was Black, and it was literally true.) It was, rather, a pervasive overlooking of Black people, Black culture, Black history, a dismissal so total that it constituted the dehumanization of an entire class of human beings. This was all invisible to me. If I said I had nothing against Black people, I wasn't putting on airs. If I said I saw and treated all people equally, I said it with all the certainty of an unexamined conscience. And when I praised the Confederacy, it literally didn't occur to me that this had much at all to do with Black people.

In 2005, I moved to Chicago for college. I met a wonderful young woman (now my wife) who mercifully did not dismiss me out of hand when I casually mentioned that I was a fan of the Confederacy. She began to have her effect on me. And over the years, Black Christians and Black neighbors have been so patient, so winsome, so manifestly human, that my unexamined and unconscious racism was ruthlessly exposed.

Once a process of repentance began in my life, I began to see that many of my beliefs about the Civil War, African Americans, and the Confederacy were factually wrong. But the deeper transformation was a moral one. I came to see that my moral failing preceded my intellectual error. Believing fake history did not make me racist as much as being racist made fake history seem plausible. My moral awakening exposed my intellectual incoherence and quickly caused it to crumble.

Who is to blame? We like to assign culpability, right? This was my sin. It's completely on me, and I have to answer for it. Yet we must keep another truth in mind at the same time. My sin was only practical, only conceivable, in a society of White supremacist imagination. My beliefs had no rational basis, and we do not, as a matter of course, wander off into random irrational beliefs. Rather, our beliefs are structured by the boundaries of the plausible in a given society. Evil embedded in the foundations of a society is hard to recognize. It appears, in fact, as nothing at all. It is natural, invisible. It is what allowed me to breathe in American air and exhale profound indifference for my fellow human beings.

I bring this experience to the Confederate flag debate. That's my bias. I don't think I'm particularly noble. I don't think I'm particularly monstrous. I'll let you work out the implications.