Friday, August 12, 2016

American Policing Is Racist, Unconstitutional, and Absurdly Violent. If It's Not On Video, Do People Care?

Perhaps it is inevitable that a movement needs a cause célèbre. We don't deal well with complexity. If an institution is rotten, we don't want to hear about its aggregate effects on a large population. We want to hear about how a mean person in that institution demeaned an angelic child. And it was all caught on tape, of course.

So it is for the Black Lives Matter movement.

So it was for the civil rights movement. The White supremacist United States slowly ground the life out of people, but it was Emmet Till whose name became known worldwide. The oppression of the segregationist South was pervasive, but Americans fixated on a few fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham. And during Jim Crow, many African Americans stayed in their their seat on a bus, or raised a ruckus, or simply refused to ride the buses in the first place. But only Rosa Parks became an icon.

This week the Justice Department released the report of its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department. See Radley Balko's review of the report, or check out German Lopez's summary. Or read the report for yourself. It deserves more attention than it is getting. But it's not going to get that attention because it's 164 pages of text written by government lawyers. It's not bleeding. It's not on video.

And that's a problem for us. We don't know how to deal with systemic failure. When institutions go to rot, responsibility is defused. When something goes wrong, who is to blame?

When Michael Brown was shot, we were quickly arguing over the details of the incident. Were his hands up? Was he running toward Darren Wilson, or away? The movement wanted an icon and its opponents wanted a heroic police officer doing his job. In the end, the justice department could not find sufficient evidence to prosecute Darren Wilson under federal law. Many Americans cried vindication!

They probably didn't read the other Justice Department report. You know the one? It's the one that showed the Ferguson police department was a predatory gang funding the city government off the backs of poor African Americans. But that wasn't on video. No one was bleeding out in the street. It was just diffuse failure, its costs borne by thousands of people instead of one body.

Read the Ferguson Report.

And then there was Tamir Rice. There were fewer people willing to defend the police in Cleveland, but more than you might suppose. And among them was the man who really counted, the county prosecutor. He ensured that the murderer got off. But in the meantime, the Justice Department released a report. You heard about it? The one that showed the Cleveland Police Department is a racist and incompetent mess? It wasn't on video either. 

Read the Cleveland Report.

And then there was Freddie Gray. He died in police custody. Somebody did something wrong. But how do you convict one person for systemic failure? All six officers charged got off. And then, just this week, the Justice Department released the results of its investigation of the Baltimore Police. In a familiar refrain, it reveals that the department routinely employs unconstitutional and racist practices. But that wasn't on video. The riot was though!

Read the Baltimore Report.

What's interesting about these three would-be icons of a movement is that in each case authorities found insufficient evidence to convict anyone of wrongdoing. At the same time, in each case authorities found that the jurisdictions in which these incidents occurred do not maintain the rule of law. Indeed, they often don't even pretend to do so. These departments are predatory.

The combination of institutional failure and individual innocence is not contradictory. When the whole system is rotten, who takes the fall when something rotten happens? Nobody, I guess. And when there isn't an obvious individual villain to scapegoat, do people care? Not a lot, I guess.

So next time you see that disturbing shooting video lighting up social media, remember that the important context isn't on the video. And decades from now when your grandkids ask you whether you supported Black aspirations for freedom in the oppressive America of the early twenty-first century, telling them you didn't know because it wasn't on video is going to sound like a lame excuse, even to you.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wayne Grudem is Wrong: Don't Vote for Trump

Polls show about 4 out of 5 White evangelicals are preparing to vote for Donald Trump. A recent article by the evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem shows us why. It's long, but read it for yourself. Read it and weep.

One hardly knows where to start with this article, but three overarching characteristics stand out.

1) It is intellectually dishonest.

"His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-(legal) immigrant or anti-Semitic or misogynistic..."

Grudem presents Trump as a flawed but basically normal nominee. I honestly don't have the gumption to argue about this. I don't know if the first person Grudem deceived was himself, or if he is engaging in calculated deceit. In either case, anyone open to the idea that Grudem might be wrong can simply do a 5-minute google search and see that he is. So let me outsource this. On racism, check out Nicholas Kristoff's recent column. And for a blow by blow account of Trump's disgraceful and unprecedented behavior as he seeks the presidency, follow James Fallows' amazing "time capsule" series. He's at #65 and counting. Read them all. Seriously.

Donald Trump is a demagogue with authoritarian instincts. He is a man governed by appetites, not thoughts. He does not give considered judgments; he excretes passions. To say this is not to claim any special insight into his character. It's only to say that I'm a sentient being with an interest in the news. There are two groups of people who don't know that Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency. The first are ordinary people with better things to do than pay attention to politics. As they begin to tune in to the election this fall, they can be persuaded. The second are people who do pay attention to politics and choose not to know the truth. That's Grudem. And I'm not under the illusion there's anything that could be said to change his mind. But perhaps we can persuade those who are still persuadable.

People have difficulty, I think, fully grasping how dangerous Donald Trump is. The logic of the demagogue, and what this would mean for a Trump presidency, is still not well-understood. Demagogues stoke fear and anger against marginal groups of people in order to gain power and popularity. The process continues without end, because it is the lifeblood of the demagogue’s power. Without a heightened sense of threat, the demagogue is just a tick without a host. And so the threat must remain. The only thing that’s certain about a Trump presidency is that he will scapegoat and persecute whole groups of people. The only question is how far he’ll go. This is the logic of the authoritarian demagogue.
Trump makes his appearance on stage at the Republican Convention, July 18, 2016.

Ordinarily, ideology is very important in a presidential election. You vote for the candidate you agree with on the issues. But ordinarily, both candidates have some measure of competence, display normal amounts of human decency, and appear capable of feelings such as shame and guilt. Ordinarily, both candidates believe in democracy and human rights. There's little evidence Trump possesses any of these qualities or beliefs. This has never happened before. In these circumstances, ideology recedes and our common humanity moves to the fore.

We’ve never seen such a radically anti-Christian figure come this close to the pinnacle of power in the United States. His most profound theological statement was when he declared he had never had reason to ask God for forgiveness. Trump is the negation of Christianity personified. He is a man who "breathes out violence," as Psalm 27 so evocatively puts it. His recklessness and contempt for human life is too obvious to take his "pro-life" claims seriously.

I would like to see an intellectually honest defense of Donald Trump from an evangelical Christian. I imagine it would go something like this: "I'm voting for the dangerous racist because he might appoint justices who might reduce abortions." Or, "I'm risking war and global turmoil in hopes that Trump will make the abortion rate, which has trended down during Obama's presidency, go down faster." As much as I would disagree with that choice, it has a coherent internal logic and accords with reality. It's a plausible scenario. And if that's where you're at, I haven't thought of a good argument to convince you otherwise. But I've yet to hear anyone make that argument. And I think that's telling. Grudem was either unwilling or unable to make an honest defense of voting for Trump. Why?

Another intellectually honest case for Trump would be something like: "I'm voting for the incompetent demagogue because at least he'll be on our side." That brings us to point number two.

2) It is selfish.

"a Trump-appointed Supreme Court, together with dozens of lower court judges appointed by him, would probably result in significant advances in many of the policy areas important to Christians. It would also open the door to huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups..."

Superficially, Grudem frames his case as a disinterested defense of what is best for the country. He quotes the scripture about seeking the welfare of the city in which you are in exile. In the same way, he says, we should seek the welfare of the United States. Grudem poses this question to guide our decision: "Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?"

At a time when many Christians are invested in unchristian attachments to patriotism and American exceptionalism, this is a dangerous question to serve as our guide. It invites Christians to vote through the lens of nationalist hierarchy (my nation first) rather than cultivating equal concern for all human life.

But leave that aside for now. Even on his own terms, Grudem fails dramatically. As the article goes on it becomes increasingly clear that for Grudem, the biggest reason to vote for Trump is that he will be on team White evangelical. He openly speculates that a Trump administration will lead to "huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups." Does that sit well with you? Christians as just another interest group jockeying for position?

After his introduction explaining that a) Christians should vote, and b) Christians should vote for Trump, the meat of the article explores "the results we could expect from a Clinton presidency with what we could expect from a Trump presidency." Well over one-third of the ensuing analysis is devoted to the protection of so-called religious liberty for White evangelicals.

Grudem is deeply concerned about protecting the traditional prerogatives of a certain kind of conservative White Christianity. He does not acknowledge that this might have trade-offs, that the same judges likely to support restrictions on abortion and special protections for evangelicalism are also likely to harm women and workers and erode the rights of LGBT people, African Americans, and immigrants. As long as a policy seems good for his own community, Grudem shows no apparent interest in its consequences for others.

Grudem's Christianity appears insular, embattled, defensive. Preoccupied with lost power and declining cultural authority, it desperately reaches for an anti-Christian strong man to restore its fortunes. This is a Christianity so self-absorbed that its posture toward the broader polity is described by words such as take and impose, rather than give and sacrifice.

Grudem's article has a short section on "minorities." Apparently all "minorities" are indistinguishable and have the same concerns. You have to read it to believe it. Almost all of this section either paraphrases or quotes directly Donald Trump's convention speech. Because if there's one thing we know, it's that we can take Donald Trump at his word. For the varied problems facing over one-third of the nation's population, Grudem has a grand total of two original sentences:
Two of the deepest causes of poverty among minority groups and racial tensions in our country are failing public schools in our inner cities and lack of available jobs...[quotes Trump]...By contrast, Clinton will bow to the teachers’ unions and oppose school choice at every turn, and she will continue to strangle businesses with high taxes and regulations, preventing job growth.
It's not a coincidence that these sentences read like every boilerplate Republican speech you've ever heard. That brings us to point number three.

3) It bows the knee to a political party. 

"this election is not just about Hillary Clinton. It is about defeating the far left liberal agenda that any Democratic nominee would champion..."

It's hard to convey here how thoroughly Grudem outsources any sense of Christian conviction toward the end of the article. He runs through a litany of issues, offering a veritable cliffs notes version of the Republican Party platform. Grudem is a theologian. But here he trades in his theology card so that he can adopt the posture of a partisan hack. Behold! A miraculous congruence between the will of God and the GOP! 

Why doesn't Grudem's cliffs notes list of policy areas mention issues of importance to other groups of people? What about voting rights, criminal justice reform, the war on drugs, Native land rights, deportations of families, police brutality, and so on? Is it because Christian theology has nothing to say to those who are affected by these issues? Or is it because the GOP has so little to say?

This almost defies belief, but Grudem notes that his largest disagreement with Trump is on trade policy. He found a way to excuse Trump's racism, misogyny, and violence, but he couldn't get past Trump's heresy on trade. Hatred can be explained away, but God forbid that he should defy GOP orthodoxy on trade policy.

This is not bold and prophetic Christianity. This is a co-opted Christ ready to be put into service for a political party.


As 4 of 5 White evangelicals prepare to vote for Trump, Grudem's article almost perfectly captures why they are going to do so. It is dishonest, selfish, and partisan while claiming to be honest, selfless, and Christian. It is an exercise in selling one's soul and calling it conviction.

I probably shouldn't write all this without going on the record myself. I can't write about co-opted Christianity without being at least dimly aware of how my own faith is bound by time and place, shaken by fear, corrupted by desire for approval. My own faith constantly stumbles toward something more comfortable, more palatable, more understandable to other people, than the kind of life Jesus invites us to discover. So is this a message from one co-opted Christian to another?

For the record, because I am a Christian I cannot support many of Hillary Clinton's positions, especially those pertaining to abortion, war, and the death penalty. She is far too ready to take life, and far too complacent about protecting it. Nor can I support her brand of nationalism and her insufficient concern for the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Don't vote for Hillary Clinton if such a vote violates your conscience. There is ample reason to withhold your vote from her. But in the same spirit, do not vote for the most dangerous and unchristian nominee of our lifetimes, a man who literally makes our fellow citizens and people around the world fear for their lives. People say this is a lesser-of-two evils election. For the Christian voter, that’s the only kind of election there is. If you think you’ve ever participated in another kind, you left your Christianity behind somewhere.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Tim Kaine Appears to be an Extremely Unusual White Guy

Regardless of what you think of the Clinton-Kaine ticket, let's acknowledge this much: Tim Kaine seems to have an unusually impressive record of pursuing racial justice and reconciliation. Before he entered politics, Kaine was a lawyer specializing in defending victims of housing discrimination. A longtime resident of Richmond, Virginia, Kaine attends a predominantly Black church. Ok, you say, he's an ambitious guy coming up in a majority-Black city. Showing his face in a Black church is an easy political win. But he's been a member there for decades. It's where his children were baptized.

And speaking of the children. Kaine's three kids went to predominantly Black Richmond Public Schools. It's hard to overstate how unusual this is for a White parent of means. It's just not done. As is typical of American cities, Richmond's public schools are much less White than the city. While 40% of the city is White, only 9% of Richmond Public Schools students are White. Kaine is an outlier in his city and in the nation.

In his work, his worship, and in the education of his own children, Kaine appears to have consistently demonstrated a commitment to racial justice. The point here is not to parrot Clinton campaign talking points. But the unusual ways Kaine has structured his life should be pointed out. This is not normal behavior for White Americans with options, much less for someone on a presidential ticket. Have we ever had such a major national political figure who has done so much in both their professional and personal lives to walk the talk?

Don't get me wrong; this is not heroic behavior, and I don't mean to play into a White savior complex. Middle-class people of color deliberately stay in poor communities all the time and people don't often notice. So this isn't heroism, but it is decency. Indeed, it's the kind of behavior one would expect to be commonplace if White Americans actually believed what they say about race. And it's the kind of profile that would be normal for White liberal politicians if they actually believed their self-righteous declarations.

In this period of violence and racial strife, there's been a lot of talk about the need to come together. Coming together for real involves fewer pleasant platitudes and more hard-edged changes in the structures of our lives. If the demands of racial justice don't affect White Americans housing and schooling choices, then we're still investing in the advantages of Whiteness rather than sharing. I'm sure there are skeletons in Kaine's closet; in particular, there are some unsavory details related to gifts he accepted while governor of Virginia. But with respect to racial reconciliation at least, Kaine seems to offer an unusual and positive example to White Americans.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Breaking News: Black People Are Ordinary People

A few days ago, I described a centuries-long crisis facing African American communities, a crisis that must be resolved if Americans are truly going to come together. This is a crisis of White supremacy, and dismantling it is the only sure foundation for peace.

This is all true, but I'm uncomfortable with what I wrote--or rather, what I didn't write. This crisis does not define African American communities. Amid oppression, the banality and beauty of daily life goes on. 

I honestly think that many White Americans would be surprised to discover that African Americans are ordinary people. Partly because of the vast social distance separating most White Americans from Black Americans, we often talk about each other in terms of abstractions and media narratives. All too often, there is no human connection available to provide accountability in these conversations. In the White American imagination, at the end of the day, whether or not Black people are simply people is an open question.

When well-meaning Whites, seeking to dramatize injustice, describe Black neighborhoods as "war zones" or refer to a "crisis", we can reinforce stereotypes and negative assumptions that White Americans already harbor. Our words might awaken some people to a righteous cause. For others, our words provide more ammunition for the ongoing suspicion of Black humanity. As Daryl Michael Scott observed, there is a long history of sympathetic people portraying African Americans as fundamentally damaged (by White racism). While this may provoke pity in some, its corollary is contempt.

Housing and school segregation leave many White Americans in a state of extraordinary ignorance about their fellow citizens. They see discussions of crime on tv and hear about protests in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. So it's easy to lose sight of the fact that most African Americans do not live in inner cities and are not poor. Even worse, lack of meaningful social contact means that many Whites don't see, and can't even imagine, the ordinary rhythms of everyday life.

They don't see the strong bonds of community in many Black neighborhoods, neighbor caring for neighbor. They don't see the communities where everyone on the block knows the kids on that block and takes responsibility for their well-being. They don't see the parents working themselves to the bone so that their kids can have a better life. They don't see the people volunteering in the schools. They don't see the dozens of ordinary actions that build community between people--here, let me shovel the snow in front of your house, there, let me get those groceries for you.

And they don't see the hard work of overcoming obstacles and discrimination. The persistence of the mom who gets up early to take that long bus ride to work. The creativity of the dad who manages to earn money doing odd jobs even though nobody will hire him full time. The desperation of trying to find decent housing or a safe school for your kids. They don't see the psychological resources that resistance to centuries of oppression has produced.

Because we don't see this, because we're so disconnected, we get instead absurd discussions about how Black people supposedly don't care about and protest crime in their own communities. We get offensive advice about how Black people need to take responsibility for America's failures. Beneath this lecturing from the sidelines lurks that persistent doubtful question of the White American imagination: are Black people really just ordinary people with the same aspirations and hopes as me?

Most White Americans have probably never thought to ask a different set of questions. What if Black people are doing everything right, and the results are what we see today? In other words, what if the problem resides not in Black communities but in American institutions?

Some of the quickest people to take issue with the the simplicity of this hypothesis would be many African Americans themselves, for whom narratives of self-criticism and self-help are pervasive. If you think Black people aren't taking responsibility, it's a pretty sure sign you don't actually know Black people.

It is perverse for me to posture as an interpreter of Black communities to a White audience. That's not my intention. Rather, I invite White people to take it upon ourselves to break out of our self-imposed isolation. Some of us who are White are aware of how segregation harms people of color. But we are often unaware of the damage it does to ourselves. Be brave enough to ask yourself how often you actually have meaningful conversations with people of color. Be brave enough to read a little history and let the evidence guide you. Be brave enough to be honest about what you know and don't know. And be brave enough to be a nonconformist in your White community. I wish more White people would stop and ask themselves why they have so many strong opinions about people they don't even know.

For those of us who want to change White minds, it is not enough to speak of the problems African Americans face. The broader message is the extraordinary resilience and perseverance of a people trying to build freedom and community even as the country around them tried to tear it down.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Amid Racial Tensions, Can Americans Come Together?

After the murder of five Dallas police officers last week, there is a palpable turn in the national climate toward rhetoric of reconciliation. The President asks us to seek empathy and mutual understanding and citizens share social media memes of police officers and citizens being nice to each other. The media frames its stories around the need to "come together" and find "common ground."

These rhetorical efforts are necessary and good. They represent a nation stepping back from what feels like the brink. (It's not, but it can easily feel like it is). In moments like these it is the responsibility of leaders to call for calm and emphasize what we have in common. As the President did Tuesday, leaders should also remind us that we've seen much worse, and have come through it. In a tense environment, responsible leaders offer perspective and breathing space. They do not add fuel to the fire. Instead, they mourn lost life and carefully try to balance the competing claims of all Americans. The essential task at hand is to avoid a deepening spiral of violence. This task the President performed admirably this week.
President Obama in Dallas
Now it is our job to be more honest than a President can afford to be. Reading his speech carefully, it seems clear the President is under no illusion that trying harder to understand each other will in itself produce the change we need. I wish all Americans had the same clarity.

Talk of coming together is often little more than cheap sentiment signifying nothing. Like anyone who isn't a sociopath, I fully support peace, empathy, finding common ground, and coming together. But if our goal is clarity of thought rather than delusion, if our goal is to actually solve problems and save lives--that's what's at stake!--then we must boldly speak against sentimentality masquerading as problem solving.

The problem is state failure. As we speak right now, Black Americans face crisis-levels of economic distress, educational neglect, violence, poor health, poverty, and discrimination. This crisis is immediately obvious to anyone who simply takes White expectations of state services and general well-being and applies them more broadly. This crisis congealed hundreds of years ago, and has continued uninterrupted ever since. It is not of Black Americans' own making. They did not start any of this. It is a crisis of White supremacy.

The appropriate question is not and has never been why African American communities often suffer  from higher levels of poverty and crime. The more honest query is how a people has accomplished so much in the face of centuries of systemic racism and neglect. The American state's failure to protect life and liberty for certain classes of its citizens continues to the present day. The great question at hand, then, is how to excavate this system and tear it out by the roots.

The intractable problem is that many--probably most--Americans refuse to admit this. And in this thick haze of self-delusion and irresponsibility, they venture forth to praise the police and the way of life they defend.

Please read me carefully. It is right and peace-producing to praise police officers who do their work with integrity and care for human life. It is wrong to defend the broader systems in which police are forced to operate. The police are themselves caught up in forces bigger than themselves. The American system produces racialized poverty and violence, and then polices it capriciously, offering neither the presumption of innocence to the upstanding, nor the likelihood of punishment to the guilty.

Americans who defend this system seem universally to think of themselves as people who oppose racism and violence and stand for justice. That may be how they see themselves, but we are under no obligation to join them in their delusions.

So we must be clear-eyed about what reconciliation rhetoric is doing in the contexts in which it is deployed. Often the rhetoric is so empty of any tangible content, so slathered in sentiment, that supporters of systemic racism are its most eager users! But memes about friendly police officers won't change the way DA offices work. Calls to respect authority won't abolish private prisons. Trying harder to understand each other won't reform use of force standards. Thanking police officers for their service won't end the war on drugs. And asking young Black men to never make a mistake--never a wrong move or word--won't remove the suspicion from an American public that is more interested in containing than empowering them.

We do need to come together, that's true. But you need only look around your neighborhood, I'd wager, to see that most White Americans might not really want to come together. Coming together would mean trying to level the playing field. It would mean desegregating the schools. It would mean making residential zoning work for the poor instead of incumbent homeowners. Guaranteeing the vote. Providing quality and accountable policing in poor neighborhoods. It would mean treating the condition African Americans face as the crisis that it is, for as long as it takes. It would mean getting serious about reparations. Coming together would mean all these things and more.

I feel compelled to be honest. I'm not sure most White Americans want to come together. I don't think most White Americans want to deal with the crises affecting their fellow citizens. They want to make sure the crisis doesn't spill over its borders. They want to see it contained. That brings us back to the police, doesn't it?

I say all this not because I'm a morbid pessimist but because history is a hard teacher. Looking to our past, we might say there were two epoch-making moments when Americans came together and resolved their differences when chaos threatened. The first was the Constitutional Convention. The hard-won compromise provided the framework for an enduring political union and national prosperity. The second was the end of Reconstruction. After 700,000 deaths in the Civil War and years of aftershocks, it is astonishing how quickly Americans got back to the normal arts of political compromise, paving the way for the United States to emerge as a global superpower.

Both of these compromises were at once essential to national prosperity and devastating to African Americans. The Constitutional framework set up a functionally pro-slavery federal government that enabled three generations of newly created southern states to spin out a cotton kingdom across the continent on the strength of an internal slave trade of extraordinary brutality. The compromised end to Reconstruction signaled the end of state-sponsored efforts to ensure equal rights for Black Americans. The South could have its mob rule, and White Americans would pretend they lived in a Republic.

There is a more recent example. We might speak of the period after the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s as a coming together moment. Nixon's "silent majority" was as much rhetorical device as reality, but there was a distinct turn away from the crisis of White supremacy. As Americans turned toward conservatism, they defeated the civil rights movement and left old problems to fester.

We could come together now, as we have in the past, only in order to contain a crisis rather than solve it. The same people always end up bearing the brunt of these false periods of peace. This is why Black Americans and everyone who cares cannot stop protesting. We don't want oppressed people to sit down and be quiet. We want to remove the oppression. We don't want peace without justice, because in the end that leaves us with neither.