Friday, April 18, 2014

Achieving the Segregation We Desire

Yesterday the Atlantic published a deeply reported piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that puts a human face on the reality of the resegregation of American schools. Her article focuses on the South, but it's a process happening nationwide. It's gotten worse since 2007, when John Roberts, writing for a Supreme Court majority, ruled that even municipalities that wanted to take race into account to achieve integration of their own volition weren't allowed to do so. Conservatives love local control, until they don't.

Coincidentally, I was speaking to a class of Kent State freshman yesterday about Stokely Carmichael's (he's the guy who coined the phrase "Black Power") critique of integration way back in 1966. Carmichael argued that what was happening in the 1960s was mere tokenism and that the burden of integration was falling on black people. Rather than a deep process that uprooted established patterns and leveled the playing field, in his view, integration actually reinforced the supremacy of whiteness by requiring blacks to integrate into white institutions. It so rarely went the other way around. As pathetic as Carmichael's end was, the potency of his critique remains to present day. I will tell you what I told the students in class yesterday: by most measures our schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. I think that surprised them, and it probably surprises you too, unless you're a regular reader.

The important thing to understand is that there is nothing benign about this process. This is about the building and maintenance of white supremacy here and now, in our own time. Hannah-Jones's peice focuses on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and what has happened there since a federal judge removed the city from a decades-old court integration order in 2000:
Freed from court oversight, Tuscaloosa’s schools have seemed to move backwards in time. The citywide integrated high school is gone, replaced by three smaller schools. Central retains the name of the old powerhouse, but nothing more. A struggling school serving the city’s poorest part of town, it is 99 percent black. D’Leisha, an honors student since middle school, has only marginal college prospects. Predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to Central have been gerrymandered into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools.
Notice that the resegregration of the schools required specific, proactive steps to achieve these outcomes. Yet we don't recognize it for what it is because we're fed a diet of magical thinking about race that blinds us to the forces that buttress white supremacy. This is why history is so important. Our view of the past is so superficial and mythical that we can't recognize racism in the present. We embrace a mythical history that sensationalizes and localizes racism, situating its perpetrators and its effects at an exaggerated distance from ourselves. Even excellent scholars indulge in this moralizing of the past. Open an academic book on the civil rights era and you can read of "rabid" racists visiting all kinds of evil upon their victims. Such language absolves us and thereby reinforces white supremacy in the present. We're not "rabid." We're better than that. Hooray for us.

At back of this is a pervasive double standard that systematically favors the maintenance of white supremacy. When actions are taken to reduce segregation they immediately become highly visible to the public and are invariably controversial. When similar actions are taken to reinforce segregation they are not acknowledged as governmental action at all, but are seen as natural features of the landscape, as if people just want to congregate among people who are like them and enjoy poorly resourced schools. This was clearly in evidence during busing's heyday, as areas that had bused students for the purposes of segregation for decades without controversy suddenly erupted in anger when busing was used for the opposite purpose.

Segregation is not natural. It is constructed by public policy. It is being constructed right now. Do not believe that segregation is a minor problem or an academic concern. The real-world effects are devastating: concentrated poverty, constant teacher turnover, inadequate resources. Most of us support school segregation. It is important to state this clearly and stop playing the game that lets us white folks absolve ourselves by a verbal declaration. If this seems too strong for you, what do you think should be done about school segregation? Do you support busing? If not, then what about school funding equalization (which would involve a big transfer of wealth from rich to poor)? If not, then what about district consolidation across segregated municipalities to achieve more integrated schools? If not, then what about making peace with segregation but funding the minority schools at a higher rate than the white schools? If not, then what is your solution? If every potential solution seems too costly to you, stop pretending you care about racism or have any real interest in eradicating white supremacy. Ta-Nehisi Coates has it right:
There doesn't seem to be much of a political solution here. It's fairly clear that integration simply isn't much of a priority to white people, and sometimes not even to black people. And Tuscaloosa is not alone. I suspect if you polled most white people in these towns they would honestly say that racism is awful, and many (if not most) would be sincere. At the same time they would generally be lukewarm to the idea of having to "do something" in order to end white supremacy.
Ending white supremacy isn't really in the American vocabulary. That is because ending white supremacy does not merely require a passive sense that racism is awful, but an active commitment to undoing its generational effects. Ending white supremacy requires the ability to do math—350 years of murderous plunder are not undone by 50 years of uneasy ceasefire. 
A latent commitment to anti-racism just isn't enough. But that's what we have right now. With that in mind, there is no reason to believe that a total vanquishing of white supremacy is necessarily in the American future.
Injustice will always be with us, but the Christian's responsibility here is clear. We must be a prophetic voice advocating for changes in public policy, while living counter-cultural personal lives that offer islands of integration, humility, and mutual respect amid a society of white supremacy.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

People are More Important than Politics

President Obama had some appropriately tough words for  ACA opponents today:

We all have ideological commitments. We all have a priori assumptions. It just so happens that this law has exposed those of conservatives in particularly revealing ways. They have taken it as an article of faith that Obamacare can't possibly work, even though universal health care has been proven to work successfully in dozens of other countries. But their belief was never about evidence. Rather, they start with their ideological commitment: small government is good and universal health care is bad. Then they work backward to find some evidence. This has been obvious in the scattershot, cynical, opportunistic and usually false arguments that have been trotted out against the law. And all the while, their ideological commitment prevents them from seeing that this law literally, tangibly makes real people better off. When we let our ideology drive us to such an extent, we're in dangerous waters. As I said, this is true of all of us. For me, my intense anti-racist beliefs, if not tethered to real people on the ground, could lead me to support counterproductive policies that don't take account of real world conditions. So it is the ACA. A law that is an obvious good is endlessly lied about and criticized. It seems a little bit strange that the people against the law don't realize that in the future the things they're advocating will be looked upon as we now look at child labor and other similar practices from a century ago. We all need to examine our commitments and be willing to set them down long enough to consider the well-being of the people right in front of us.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Our Tax Code Should be More Supportive of Parenting

As a parent, I kinda like this:
When my mother was my age, she was working full time while raising three small children, and she spent every spare moment studying to finish a graduate degree. My father was working extremely hard as well. Between the two of them, they were able to provide their kids with a solidly middle-class life. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun.
So now, as a childless professional in my mid-30s, I often reflect on the sacrifices working parents make to better the lives of their children. And I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I ought to pay much higher taxes so that working parents can pay much lower taxes. I believe this even though I also believe a not inconsiderable share of my tax dollars are essentially being set on fire by our frighteningly incompetent government. Leviathan is here to stay, whether I like it or not, and someone has to pay for it. That someone should be me, and people like me.
I don't know that this is the stuff on which public policy should be built, but there is something to it. I have heard people say, "Just because I don't want to be a parent doesn't make me more selfish." Umm, no, actually it does. I have a weird hang-up on this. Lots of things can annoy me, but when I hear people say things along this line I can go from annoyed to deeply angry pretty quickly. Actually, I guess the word for it is contempt. When people say they simply enjoy their life and don't think they're cut out for raising kids, the only conclusion I can reach is that they're still kids themselves. Using our tax code to make them subsidize the less selfish people is probably not a bad idea!

The Fatalist vs. the Nationalist

Sorry about the weird fonts. Don't have the energy to fix them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait have been engaged in a debate that is essential reading for anyone interested in race, poverty, culture, or the intersection of all three. It doesn't hurt that they are two of the best writers on the web. It began with a somewhat sloppy post from TNC equating Paul Ryan's recent comments with tropes regularly offered by President Obama himself before Black audiences:
A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship:
"If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics."
Cousin Pookie and Uncle Jethro voted at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. They voted for Barack Obama. Our politics have not changed. Neither has Barack Obama's rhetoric. Facts can only get in the way of a good story. It was sort of stunning to see the president give a speech on the fate of young black boys and not mention the word racism once. It was sort of stunning to see the president salute the father of Trayvon Martin and the father of Jordan Davis and then claim, "Nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life."
Chait responded:
There are points of overlap, to be sure, but the Ryan argument is dramatically different. Ryan’s analysis — or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda — is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor...
It’s not clear what proportion of the blame for black poverty Obama assigns to personal responsibility. (Obviously, much less than Ryan does.) But Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.
TNC admitted he did not make clear enough distinctions, but challenged Chait's analogy:
Chait's metaphor is incorrect. Barack Obama isn't the coach of "Team Negro," he is the commissioner of the league. Team Negro is very proud that someone who served on our staff has risen (for the first time in history!) to be commissioner. And Team Negro, which since the dawn of the league has endured biased officiating and whose every game is away, hopes that the commissioner's tenure among them has given him insight into the league's problems. But Team Negro is not—and should not be—confused about the commissioner's primary role.
"I'm not the president of black America," Barack Obama has said. "I'm the president of the United States of America."
And the president of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country's heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America's heritage is kleptocracy—the stealing and selling of other people's children, the robbery of the fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, for pools in which they can not swim, for libraries that bar them, for universities that exclude them, for police who do not protect them, for the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators. 

The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging "positive habits and behavior" while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman and our ancestors who fought for the right of family is true. In that fight America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
Chait appeared flummoxed by the tenor of TNC's words, and questioned where he was coming from:
What struck me, instead, is that Coates turns the question of Obama’s role as head of state into a profoundly pessimistic take on the character and future of that state:
America has rarely been our ally. Very often it has been our nemesis. …
I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
I have never previously detected this level of pessimism in Coates’s thinking before. It is also deeply at odds with the hard evidence. It is hard to explain how the United States has progressed from chattel slavery to emancipation to the end of lynching to the end of legal segregation to electing an African-American president if America has “rarely” been the ally of African-Americans and “often” its nemesis. It is one thing to notice the persistence of racism, quite another to interpret the history of black America as mainly one of continuity rather than mainly one of progress.
TNC replied
Initially Chait argued that President Obama's habit of speaking about culture before black audiences was laudable because it would "urge positive habits and behavior" that are presumably found especially wanting in the black community.
Chait argued that this lack of sufficient "positive habits and behaviors" stemmed from cultural echoes of past harms, which now exist "independent" of white supremacy. Chait now concedes that this assertion is unsupportable and attempts to recast his original argument:
I attributed the enduring culture of poverty to the residue of slavery, terrorism, segregation, and continuing discrimination.
Not quite (my emphasis):
The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.
The phrase "culture of poverty" doesn't actually appear in Chait's original argument. Nor should it—the history he cites was experienced by all variety of African Americans, poor or not. Moreover, the majority of poor people in America have neither the experience of segregation nor slavery in their background. Chait is conflating two different things: black culture—which was shaped by, and requires, all the forces he named; and "a culture of poverty," which requires none of them.
That conflation undergirds his latest column. Chait paraphrases my argument that "there is no such thing as a culture of poverty." His evidence of this is quoting me attacking the "the notion that black culture is part of the problem." This evidence only works if you believe "black culture" and "a culture of poverty" are somehow interchangeable.
You really need to read everything; there's just too much to know what to excerpt. But if I may make an intervention here, I think questions of nationalism and American exceptionalism are key subtexts here. We all have a hierarchy of allegiances. For most of us, the deep-down core of our hierarchy probably differs from our stated beliefs. The problem for American liberalism when it comes to racial justice is that it is deeply committed to the ideal of the progressive, exceptional nation.  When you implicate the nation, as Coates has, you'll find that erstwhile allies begin to scatter.  Indeed, Chait seems genuinely startled by Coates's words, finding in them a "grim fatalism" that is almost absurd. He doesn't understand why anyone would look at the Black experience and see continuity as much or more than progress.

But why? Why should this be absurd, or a sign of grim fatalism? When the gap between the average Black and White household wealth is 10-20 times! When our nation systematically delivers inferior education to minority children. When the Black unemployment rate is double that of Whites. We can all cite various statistics, some showing advances since the civil rights era, others showing stagnation, still others growing worse. Why is progress the legitimate, socially respectable way to frame these statistics? Why must we give in to the narrative of progress? What purpose does it serve? What about it, precisely, will produce more progress? The narrative of progress has much more to do with our view of the nation than our desire for racial justice. In fact, it is usually deployed to resist advances rather than accelerate them.

I contend that liberalism demands that Coates's views be treated as absurdities because the nation is considered -- a priori -- the vehicle by which racial justice has been and will be achieved. But this prioritizes the nation and puts racial justice in the background. As Critical Race Theorist Kimberle Crenshaw writes, "sober assessments of how far we have come are replaced by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived." Now, I'm not saying that Chait thinks we have "arrived," but he does think it is unreasonable to use anything other than "progress" as our frame for understanding race in American life. In contrast, Coates is operating in a long tradition of Black opposition to accepted national narratives. He is stepping outside of the nation and critiquing it, and that is something that many Americans will not abide.

Though he hasn't to my knowledge identified himself as such, Coates is essentially embracing the tenets of Critical Race Theory. At bottom, he makes a simple and incontrovertible point: the country never has and does not currently function for minorities as well as it does for whites, nor was it built to do so. Amid the genuine progress made, we ought to consider keeping that undeniable fact in mind. And we should contemplate its core implication: why should we assume this will ever change?

White Parents: Talk to Your Kids about Race. It's Part of Their Life Already

I've written before about the importance of White parents talking to their kids about race. Melinda Wenner Moyer had a nice article over the weekend making similar points and offering up some research on the question:
I’ve avoided talking about race with my kids mainly because I’ve thought that racial bias is learned by direct instruction and imitation—and that if I don’t talk about race or act in explicitly racist ways, my kids won’t pick up prejudices. My sources told me that this notion is pretty common; research suggests that nonwhite parents talk about racial identity much more frequently with their kids than white parents do, but that even minority parents often avoid talking about racial differences. “There’s this idea that if you do call attention to race at a young age, you’re poisoning kids’ minds,” says Erin Winkler, chair of the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
This theory makes sense. In fact, it’s what social learning theorists believed for a long time, and why so many parents strive to make their children “color-blind.” But over the past 15 years, research has supported a different idea: that children start assigning meaning to race at a very young age. When researchers presented 30-month-olds with pictures of children of various races and asked them to pick who they would want to play with, the toddlers were more likely to pick kids of their race. Likewise, when sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin observed kids in an urban day care center for 11 months, they found that children as young as three excluded other kids from play based on their race and used race to negotiate power in their social networks, as they described in their 2001 book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism.
Alicia and I fear for the next generation and the prospects for further advances toward racial justice. In our work we see how confused White kids are. Some have even called me out for being racist when I make a comment that acknowledges the existence of race. Kids who can't make distinctions between race-consciousness and racial prejudice are not equipped to navigate our world as it is. They are not prepared to be forces for justice and reconciliation. If they have been taught that race is a big taboo that must be wished away, they are likely to become another generation of stunted, defensive, destructive White people who will reinforce a society of "racism without racists." Last summer I wrote:
As a White Christian parent, what do you teach your kids about race? By the way, you are teaching them about race one way or another. If it's something that is not discussed in your house, that in itself is a powerful message. But let's assume that most of us do have some sort of explicit conversations. We might tell them about God's design, that we're all the same and race is a fiction we've created. We might tell them that everyone should be treated the same and racism is wrong.

This is all well and good, and it might make your kids into decent people. But if that's as far as it goes, they will be unlikely to have a Christian perspective or be prepared to fight for racial justice. We set our kids up for failure by sending them out into the world with a brittle admonition -- racism is wrong! -- backed up by little sense of how it operates, how it influences the lives of our brothers and sisters, and how it can be resisted. What happens to our kids, for example, when they find out that Blacks are in fact disproportionally poor, do in fact commit disproportionate amounts of violent crime, do in fact occupy disproportionally lower status jobs?

They will tend to develop cognitive dissonance. On the one hand they hold resolutely to a superficial knowledge that racism is wrong, while on the other they begin to look down on those who are not like them. In this dissonance we begin to see the defensiveness and inability for self-examination that plagues so many White adults. "I'm not racist but...what about crime rates...have you seen their neighborhood?" Don't tell me you don't recognize that state of mind. It reflects the views of tens of millions of White Americans.
I think that holds up pretty well. So...before we talk to our kids about race, we must educate ourselves. And since the vast majority of us harbor racial prejudice, we must do the hard work of self-examination and confession and learning. That's something that can be modeled in front of our kids. It will be much harder, but much more fulfilling and useful, than simplistic admonitions about being colorblind.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Butler as National Myth

Alicia and I watched The Butler last week. I was struck by how safe the film is. Though made by Lee Daniels, this is a movie that reinforces the dominant post-civil rights era tropes rather than challenging them. Maybe it's because I just read Black is a Country, but I felt as though even the most conservative whites could watch this and, aside from an eye roll here or there, come away with their faith in the nation strengthened, and their complacency about injustice reinforced.

This movie is not really about celebrating the struggle for black equality. This is a movie that serves the useful function of incorporating limited and contested black gains into the narrative of the exceptional nation. In this story, black progress is important insofar as it represents the ultimate evidence of the nation's exceptionalism and ongoing promise.

The film's portrayal of the bombing of the freedom riders' bus is instructive. The scene is more than just violent and frightening, as I'm sure it was in real life. In the movie it becomes grotesque, demonic, Gothic. We see white hoods; we hear strange sounds that are almost animal-like. The images are distorted. If this is the face of white resistance, then haven't we indeed won a comprehensive victory? If this is the essence of what blacks faced, then hasn't the exceptional nation swept away the injustice that plagued it?

In our popular culture we still have no language or narrative structure to talk about the civil rights movement as a real thing that won some victories and suffered some defeats, leaving the boundaries of change far short of the racial egalitarianism it sought. Instead, we talk about it as national myth. We still don't have the means of speaking about white resistance in normalizing ways. This is how we end up with scenes like the one I mentioned above. To speak about white resistance in all its mundane power implicates too many things we hold dear. We don't want to admit that the civil rights movement was defeated because of people like us, prioritizing precisely the kinds of things we prioritize. No, we want to talk about people in hoods.

We cannot build a just social order on the foundation of magical history. But we want the magic more than the justice.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Paul Ryan, Apostle to the Poor

In the past year or so Paul Ryan has revamped himself as a poverty policy wonk and the Republican in Washington who is going to address intractable problems other conservatives ignore. Well, he is getting skewered for comments he made on Bill Bennett's radio show this morning:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
It is true that this is wrongheaded (more on that in a minute) but it is important to include the rest of the quote:
Everybody's got to get involved. So this is what we talk about when we talk about civil society. If you're driving from the suburb, you know, to the sports arena downtown, by these blighted neighborhoods, you can't just say "I'm paying my taxes; government's going to fix that." You need to get involved. You need to get involved yourself -- whether through a good mentor program or some religious charity, whatever it is -- to make a difference. And that's how we help resuscitate our culture.
We could start by giving Ryan his due. The idea that these areas must not be ignored and it is everyone's responsibility to get involved is actually a starting point--however basic it may be--for change. And if Ryan takes this beyond rhetoric, it is more than many liberals do. I've found that the profiles of those who really do get involved do not necessarily break down on simple partisan lines. Public policy advocacy without personal involvement is cheap. Not only that, it is likely to do as much harm as good.

All that said, Ryan is still approaching this from a place of ignorance. His scapegoating of the "inner cities in particular" is an obvious euphemism and an expression of racial prejudice that blames the very people he purports to help. Ryan may yet grow out of it, but he is still stuck in ahistorical, magical thinking. He looks out upon a problematic landscape built with the hard and measurable stuff of public policy, and locates solutions in the nebulous and confounding category of "culture."

This reliance upon cultural explanations reflects broader conservative sensibilities, but even these are selectively applied. More sympathy is granted to certain groups, their historical grievances legitimated, while those of African Americans are treated as merely another symptom of cultural pathology. Witness conservatives' unquestioning support for Israel's uses of historical memory. In this schema, recalling the Holocaust is heroic, while recalling slavery encourages a victim mentality that inhibits advancement.

The problem is bigger than selectively applied sympathy. At a basic level it involves resorting to cultural explanations for Blacks in particular when such explanations would not even be considered in analogous circumstances for other groups. Precisely because the systemic discrimination African Americans face across nearly every domain of American life is so well-attested to in the literature, any attempt to ignore this and jump straight to vague cultural explanations immediately calls either the competence or the goodwill of the person into question. One is compelled to ask why this issue, in particular, causes masses of people to make gross logical errors. It's a little like blaming Mongolians for being rotten seafarers without every bothering to notice their country is landlocked. (I don't know if Mongolians are rotten seafarers)

Conservatism at its best does indeed motivate the kind of action Ryan described in the second half of the quote. But it must be pared with public policy that does not blind itself to either contemporary social realities or its own complicity in producing the current order. It is understandable that conservatives are reluctant to think in these terms, because it calls into question so much of what they hold dear. What are the implications for private property when it has been used so consistently to advantage Whites and disadvantage other groups? You can easily draw a bright color line from Jefferson's agrarian myth to the homestead act and the failure to do land redistribution after the Civil War, to the era of restrictive housing covenants and FHA discrimination, to the contemporary milieu of lax fair housing enforcement, discriminatory lending practices, and exclusionary zoning. And the story can be repeated across a dozen other areas of public policy.

What are the implications when even basic ideas about private property and the American dream of home ownership are shown to have always worked better for Whites than for others? The object of my thesis study, Mississippi segregationist senator John C. Stennis (a Democrat) understood the implications. He did not resort to racial demagoguery or feel the need to make explicitly racial arguments in defense of segregation. He realized that a basic conservatism would defend it just fine. In a country that has never yet structured itself to work for all its citizens as well as it does for its White ones, defending tradition often means defending White supremacy. What, after all, is a more American tradition than White supremacy? This is conservatism's burden in our present day. In defending what is best in the past and the status quo, it must make clear distinctions and dissociate itself in both rhetorical and practical terms from its intellectual inheritance. This it has almost totally declined to do.

Understand, this is not a matter of the Republican Party taking upon itself the burden of hundreds of years of American history. On the contrary, the Democratic Party is responsible for what is easily the most disgusting major party in American history (circa 1860-64). And by 1976, their standard bearer Jimmy Carter was still blithely campaigning with segregationists. But the Republican Party has, in some ways, turned increasingly negative toward minorities and has a lot to answer for in the past 35 years. Moreover, it has become the home of the sort of conservatism that has always animated America's most racially reactionary factions, including those who were southern Democrats for over 100 years.

I sincerely hope that Paul Ryan shows genuine curiosity in his newfound posture as a man determined to battle poverty. I hope he is able to enlarge his view of the world and see, as was said in another gilded age, "how the other half lives." It is clear to me that, as much as liberals would hate it and cry foul, a Republican Party that could win 20% of the Black vote and compete for Hispanics and Asians would be a huge boon to those groups and to the country. The lack of competition for minority votes probably induces policy paralysis and makes representatives less responsive to their needs (political scientists: research on this question?). But a multicolored GOP won't arrive until they begin respecting Americans who are not White and considering how to represent their interests. In the meantime, the widespread conservative reluctance to think about race and public policy has turned many conservatives into unwitting defenders of White supremacy.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Living at Peace in the World

I drove through Chicago this weekend. Didn't have time to stop.

Now, that's a painful thing.

I cannot tell you how Chicago makes me feel, except to say that its pull is gravitational. I have no intention of resisting it, but that only leaves me in God's hands. As of this writing, the odds of returning any time soon are long indeed. But what do odds mean? What do odds mean when Jesus hems in my path on every side and puts me exactly where I need to be? (This is not a turn of phrase; I mean it quite literally. The pattern has shown itself enough for me to be amply convinced of it. I'm not sure why I get this treatment, while others seem to do without.)

It is a strange and wonderful thing, at 27, to  have found my calling. Like much else in my life, it doesn't quite seem fair. Any Christian worth her salt will tell you that she is a recipient of God's grace. We're taught to say that. The basic idea is that we do bad things, but God takes care of it. Also, we must pay him lip-service when good things happen, pretending that we think the credit all belongs to him and we're just happy to be along for the ride. These are the pretenses we are taught to maintain.

It is something quite different to discover -- speaking only for myself -- that God's grace is significantly more intense and bizarre than this. It is sobering to realize that I wake up most every morning with a fixed purpose: to see how I can avoid encountering the Gospel. It is this determination of mine, not primarily any bad thing that I do, against which God insists upon activating his mercy. That he does so repeatedly, against my objections, seems quite and blessedly unfair.

Does this seem opaque? Consider this: Do you prefer the morning when you feel on top of the world, having everything in hand, your tasks completed and your competence in no doubt, or the morning when you feel weak and overwhelmed? If you prefer the former, and spend a great deal of time and energy striving to achieve such a state of mind, as I do, it's difficult to see how you are doing anything other than running away from the Gospel. Yet my running seems not to have its intended effect. What I mean to take me away only ends up taking me farther down the rabbit hole of his mercy. This, I hope, is what we really mean when we superficially say we're sinners in need of grace.

There is something about this that makes the Rabbit Hole Christian (to coin a phrase) activist quite different from, say, the social democrat trying to organize a troubled neighborhood. You can call this hubris if you like. It is convenient for me, isn't it, to claim a special (and implicitly superior) sensibility belonging to Christians. But it seems to me that the Christian activist (or scholar) has a unique decentering of self that enables her to be at once more and less radical than others. I saw a lot of passion in Milwaukee this weekend. I saw dedicated activists and scholars who have done more good than anyone has a right to expect. I saw righteous indignation at the injustices of our communities. I saw very little humility. I saw and heard much light and heat about the need to tear down unjust social structures. I heard rather less determination to join the oppressed in their sufferings.

For the secular scholar-activist seeking to build a just society, the end-game is unclear. Are we to make of our poor neighbors soulless materialists, ready to take up their identities as middle-class consumers? Do we retreat to the utopianism that killed tens of millions of poor people around the world in the last century? Should our frustration at the deep wrongs of the status quo cause us to embrace increasingly radicalized and unproven ideologies? What is our hope and purpose?

For the Christian scholar-activist, facile distinctions -- between self and others, individual and collective, spiritual and physical, present and future -- begin to break down. The mandate for the eradication of all injustice could not be stronger: there is in fact a moral arc to the universe, and this is so because there is a creator. Yet our determination to bring death to injustice is tempered -- in the best possible sense -- by our sorrow. It is the knowledge that comprehensively carrying out this mandate implies inflicting death on ourselves. I am, after all, a stubbornly persistent locus of injustice.

The message of the cross compels us to act even as it decenters our actions, opening up the possibility of contented radicalism. Put it this way: it demands everything, but reminds us not take ourselves too seriously (oops, too late!). It makes sense, then, to seek out a lifestyle that discards American values opposed to that message: safety, comfort, respectability. Living without regard for these values, even when our resources would allow us to embrace them, is radicalism by nearly any measure. It is a dichotomous radicalism that rejects materialism even as it stands in solidarity with those lacking material dignity. It affirms the supremacy of the spirit even as it resists the false spiritualization of social and material problems. It seeks to build a just collective for the sake of the individual and a healthy individual for the sake of the collective.

When Christian scholar-activists make this concrete, many Christians will profess to find something other than Christianity at work. They will tell us we've fallen prey to political liberalism or academic group-think. My passion is to tear down the racism that permeates the foundations of American life. It is a grievous thing to be told that this passion, which only grows the further I go down the rabbit hole of God's mercy, comes from something or someone other than God. It is a grievous thing when Christians look out upon the injustices of our communities and do not plead the cause of the poor. It is difficult to contemplate the arrogance of many Christians who refuse to believe the testimony of their brothers and sisters when they cry out about the reality of their oppression.

But I must remember this: what can I find outside myself that I cannot find within if only I'm willing to look? Even as I write these words, I compel God to activate his mercy again, called forth to cover and redeem the twisted morass of motivations that gave them birth.

Writing this out has clarified some of my thinking. At the risk of clouding yours, dear reader, (I fear this is not very readable) I believe I will click "publish."

Awakening the Nation

I spent the weekend in Milwaukee giving a paper at UWM's Racial Formation : Racial Blindness Conference. I have some thoughts.

It was a painful disjuncture to spend such a stimulating time among a community of scholars and activists who are exploring how to bring their scholarship to the people to affect change, only to find out yesterday evening that jurors could not agree on a murder charge in the trial of Michael Dunn.

It is painful to spend so many grueling hours researching, meditating, writing, uncovering the roots of our contemporary racial order, only to have people declare that I'm wrong and there's nothing that a little hard work and personal responsibility won't fix. In America, you see, everyone is a racial expert. I move that we extend this principle to a wider field; let's be consistent after all. I'll start tomorrow. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to install plumbing in a house or go to a hospital and perform a knee surgery. No, I don't know anything about these things, but how hard could it be?

My tone of bitter sarcasm feels warranted in this moment, but I can't help but feel it is unchristian. If motivated by grief over the deleterious influence of Americans' ignorant pride, my current sensibility is probably warranted. But if motivated by my own professional pride and annoyance that my limited expertise is not recognized, then I am far from Jesus indeed. But this, too, is covered by his grace.
The paper I gave is titled "Awakening the Nation: John C. Stennis, Brown v. Board, and the Strategic Defense of White Supremacy." Mississippi senator John C. Stennis is a fascinating figure because in important respects he did not accept the premises of either massive resistance or southern exceptionalism. He brought to the debate over Brown three key assumptions that not only guided his actions but proved to be prophetic. The assumptions were these:

1) White Americans, of whatever region, were much the same. When the stakes became personal and concrete they would value the traditional wages of whiteness more than racial equality.
2) This essential sameness implied that White southerners could actually win in the court of public opinion, if not in the Supreme Court, if they framed their resistance in an appealing way.
3) White supremacy in the United States was sustainable if rendered increasingly localized and unofficial.

My basic argument is that Stennis was right. On all three of these assumptions, he was correct. He faced many setbacks, but in the long-term his assumptions were vindicated. The paper traces his strategies and actions in the years immediately before and after Brown, including his efforts to improve Black schools to shape public opinion and push the enforcement mechanisms of White supremacy down to the county level or lower so they would be less visible and harder to fight. His newfound opposition to federal funding for public schools also dates to these years. Once funding became linked to integration, Stennis shifted to new rhetoric about the sanctity of local control and the primacy of local school boards. I also show how his three core assumptions shaped his delicate balancing act with the Citizens Councils and his work on the Southern Manifesto.

When you look at the mid-1950s through the lens of figures like Stennis, the shift toward nationwide opposition to school desegregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s begins to look quite a bit different. Invariably framed in a narrative of "backlash," the emergence of overwhelming White opposition to efforts to promote racial equality in American education was a shock to some elite pundits. It was no surprise to John C. Stennis. It was his vindication. Framing it as a backlash erases the influence of Stennis and the forces he embodied, leaving us only with caricatures of segregationist monsters we can safely consign as relics of the Deep South with no influence on the contemporary United States.

A perusal of the present-day educational landscape puts Stennis’s success in stark relief. In his home county of Kemper, the public schools have become synonymous with Black schools, while Whites embrace private education. Though Whites constitute 35% of the population of Kemper County, they make up only 2% of public school enrollment in the county (Census Bureau; Federal Education Budget Project, New America Foundation). Nationwide, schools are now more segregated than at any time since the late 1960s, a dynamic that appears to have only grown worse since the Supreme Court ruled against local, limited, and voluntary efforts to achieve racial integration in Parents Involved in Community Schools et al. v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al (Dorsey). Three-quarters of Black and Hispanic students now attend schools in which less than half the students are White, and 15% of Black students attend schools that have essentially no White enrollment (Orfield et al). The effects, in the form of inadequate resources and concentrated poverty, are severe. These White supremacist outcomes are often seen as benign features of the landscape, standard facts of American life that are all but invisible to many Whites. Others see school segregation as a troubling but almost mysterious problem that all people of goodwill deplore. In reality, modern-day segregation is a logical outcome of the assumptions John C. Stennis brought to the fight over Brown sixty years ago.

Celebration of segregation’s demise has been incorporated into the nation’s political culture and Americans’ sense of themselves as a freedom loving people. This is made easier by emphasizing the pathetic end of vanquished demagogues. But figures like Stennis upset these simple narratives. The esteem in which he was held by his Senate colleagues, the power he accumulated, the astonishing breadth of his career—all these factors defy facile attempts to brush Stennis aside as a fringe figure of the Deep South. Just as surely as the worst excesses of massive resistance were overcome, the influence of White supremacist politics in more moderate and malleable forms lingered on.
Dana N. Thompson Dorsey, "Segregation 2.0: The New Generation of School Segregation in the 21st Century," Education and Urban Policy 45 (2013): 533-547 

Gary Orfield, John Kucsera, and Genevieve Siegel Hawley, “E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” September 2012, The Civil Rights Project, The University of California.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Almost No One Wants to Know the Real Martin Luther King

"The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society...and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced."

Who said this? Malcom X? Robert F. Williams? No. It was, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.

Call him na├»ve if you wish--recklessly utopian perhaps--but do not pretend we've had the reckoning he demanded. The relentless drive to mythologize King is propelled by the yawning gap between the vision he proclaimed and the values of the society that claims him. He was too central a figure to forget, so he must be appropriated. He must be absorbed, becoming a totem to bolster the very societal ills he resisted.

Dr. King spoke of the interrelated problems of racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism--problems that were so embedded in the fabric of American life that they compromised the very structure of society. We modern Americans, appropriately colorblind and tolerant, believe that we've fulfilled the promise of the Black freedom struggle by...wait for it...being nice to each other. But militarism has a funny way of withstanding a pleasant hello. Materialism seems impervious to good social graces. To the extent we think of poverty, it is only to imagine growing the ranks of soulless middle-class materialists caught in the spiritual dead end that is the American Dream. Meanwhile, racism withers on the vine, we're told, because personal prejudice openly expressed is the unforgivable sin in modern America. Segregated schools, concentrated poverty, mass incarceration--these do not pertain to racism because they do not depend upon an individual acting malevolently toward another.

It is not wrong to celebrate positive changes in our society. It is essential and good to do so. But every year when this day comes around we do much more than that. As Kimberly Williams Crenshaw has written, "Sober assessments of how far we have come" are replaced "by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived." This reflects, broadly, the conceit of our present-minded culture that takes facile notions of human "progress" as obvious facts. More than that, it reveals, particularly, the persistent marginalization of what racism is and what it has meant and continues to mean to the American experience.

To talk about America honestly is to talk about racism. To talk about the present-day flaws in our society is to talk about racism. To talk about the working out of the gospel in the life of the Christian is to talk about racism. When we ignore race, that most potent and devastating of modernity's inventions, we do not rob it of its power. We merely accede to its quiet demands. Why do I live where I do? Why do I work where I do? Why do I worship where I do? Why am I successful? With hands over our ears and eyes firmly shut, we'd rather not know. The flipside of our colorblind tolerance is our insistent denigration of the importance of race to the lives of real people. We think in doing so we're dealing a death blow to modernity's evil offspring. In reality we're just unilaterally disarming, having lost our ability to distinguish between the racism that must be eradicated and the race consciousness that is necessary to achieve that eradication.

I spent years believing I could convince people of this. I have found that it is not something to be convinced of. It is something to experience, to learn, to be convicted of. It is a journey.

It's Martin Luther King Day. Sounds like as good a time as any to get started.