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.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

After Charleston, We Must Remember

As we mourn the dead of Charleston, let us remember. As many of you know by now, this was not just any church. This was Denmark Vesey's church. It was a living symbol of a Black freedom fighter. Let us remember. Let us reject White frames of remembrance that cast Robert E. Lee as noble and Denmark Vesey as threatening. Let us remember that African Americans were both Christians and Americans in the South at a time when few Whites wanted anything to do with the genuine article of either.

"What one begs the American people to do," the Black writer James Baldwin declared in 1965, is simply to accept our history."

Half a century later, this act of remembrance is still the great task remaining before us.

By their very presence, Black Americans have always represented a threat to the White "system of reality" (Baldwin's words). When American law said Whiteness was a prerequisite for citizenship, Black Americans insisted they were entitled to it anyway. When the idea of America as a "Christian Nation" was sheer farce, African Americans gave lonely expression to a genuine faith. It makes sense that the terrorist targeted a Black church this week. The Black church challenges, at once, the entire system of White racial-religious myth that continues to hold sway in our imaginations. To the present day, forthright expression of Black perspectives evokes extraordinary anger and defensiveness among White Americans. To this day, Black Americans represent a threat to our very identities. Let us remember.

James Baldwin saw this more clearly than any writer I know. At a debate in Cambridge, England, in 1965, Baldwin said, "Until the moment comes when we, the American people, are able to accept the fact that...my ancestors were both white and black; that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other; and that I am not a ward of America; I am not an object of missionary charity; I am one of the people who built the country--until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American Dream..."

Too many of us want to construct this new identity on the cheap. We want a "post-racial" future without the reality of our oppressive past. The problem is, deep in our bones, White Americans understand the awful logic of retribution. We intuitively, if subconsciously, understand the magnitude of what Black Americans could justly demand. Yet Black Americans have repeatedly rejected an eye for an eye. They have taken the fake Christianity of the enslaver and produced a faith worthy of the name of Christ, a faith we saw so richly in action in the words of grieving family members as they spoke forgiveness for the Charleston terrorist.

Most Black Americans have not embraced the cold logic of revenge to which they are entitled. Baldwin was one of many who instead asked for something as profoundly simple as it is difficult: acknowledge our history. Admit the full humanity of Black Americans. Admit that they took a country that was never intended for them, and made it into something different for all of us. Admit that their experience is unlike any other group in American history. Come to grips with why race was made. Confront the causes and consequences of White advantage here and now. Many White Americans would rather corrupt our entire "system of reality" than face an honest accounting of the history to which we belong.

Remembering is not a culmination but a beginning. Remembering is not sufficient for justice in 2015, but it is a precondition for it. As the flag of enslavement, torture, rape, and treason flies high in South Carolina, the need for a reckoning remains. What kind of social sickness must stalk the land that would allow such a hateful emblem to be open to interpretation?

Baldwin's opponent in that debate of 1965 was the founding father of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley. His sneering response to Baldwin has much to tell us about the White American imagination then and since. He insinuated that Black Americans were either culturally or genetically inferior. At a time of state-sanctioned oppression, he castigated Black Americans for supposedly not taking advantage of the opportunities available to them. In a bizarre and chilling conclusion, Buckley warned that if made to choose between the American Dream and Black demands, White Americans would embark on a race war to defend their civilization. And they would do so with confidence in the rightness of their cause, just as the British had done in their fight against Nazis a generation before.

In Buckley's rhetoric, Black Americans constituted a threat to traditional American culture, economic systems, and political practices. The American Dream stood in opposition to Black demands for inclusion in it. Blackness, analogized as Nazism in Buckley's imagination, threatened the very meaning of America.

It is somehow fitting that Buckley warned of a race war fifty years ago. A friend of presidents, prolific author, maker of a movement, recipient of the nation's highest civilian honor, host of an award-winning public television show--Buckley was anything but marginal. Indeed, he had a brilliant mind. His morally sick system of reality was not exceptional; it was representative of the nation he loved.

By all accounts, Dylann Roof acted alone when he shot nine people this week. But the ideas animating him are as American as apple pie. He wanted to start a race war.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Usable Past For Justice-Loving Evangelicals

At a time when the public face of American evangelicalism is strongly associated with the cultural conservatism of the White South, it may surprise some of us to hear that evangelicals are also heirs to a tradition of progressive reform. Indeed, it may surprise evangelicals themselves. Both within the church and without we have been inundated with narratives of resentment and reaction from the descendants of southern enslavers and White supremacists. Jerry Falwell's transition from a provincial segregationist pastor to avatar of the "Moral Majority" has been told many times not only because he was important in his own right, but because his story embodies some of the embarrassing roots of contemporary evangelicalism.

But our roots go deeper than that, and they're important for young evangelicals to know. Then perhaps they can fight for justice because they are evangelicals, not in spite of it. I was reminded of this when reading Daniel Walker Howe's excellent history of America from 1815-1848, What Hath God Wrought. Religion is prominent in Howe's interpretation, and few figures loom larger than Charles Grandison Finney. Finney is well known to contemporary evangelicals because of his phenomenal success and influence as an evangelist. That we are less likely to be aware of his other exploits is itself an indication of the dominance the White supremacist evangelical tradition has in our understanding of ourselves. Here's Howe:
Finney saw social implications in the Christian message. He preached against the evils of alcohol and tobacco [At a time when alcohol consumption was much higher than now and really was a vast social problem]. He ran greater risks by his active opposition to slavery. Although New York had begun a process of gradual emancipation, some persons remained in bondage there until 1827. When Finney was preaching at Chatham Street Chapel...he refused the sacrament of communion to slaveholders on the grounds that they were unrepentant sinners. In October 1833, he offered the chapel to a meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Their demands for immediate, uncompensated abolition met a hostile reception in New York...When a mob stormed the building, the leaders of the society barely escaped....A series of disorders followed, all deriving from the church's support for the antislavery cause. After the Broadway Tabernacle was built for Finney's use to replace the theater-turned-chapel, arsonists burned it down...

In 1835, Finney went to Ohio to teach theology at the exciting newly founded Oberlin College. Oberlin had been created by one of the major student rebellions in American history. Seventy-five radical antislavery students left Lane Seminary in Cincinnati en masse, protesting racist practiced by the seminary trustees...

In 1851, he would become president of the college. During Finney's years there, Oberlin defined the cutting edge of social and religious innovation. At a time when women could find little higher education open to them, it was the first coeducational college in the world. It trained Christian missionaries and antislavery activists of both sexes...The college was racially desegregated on more than a token basis; indeed, before he accepted his professorship Finney stipulated that "we should be allowed to receive colored people on the same conditions that we did white people." Oberlin became a safe haven on the underground railroad for slaves escaping to freedom in Canada...

For widespread influence, personal integrity, social conscience, and spiritual power, few American evangelists of a later age could equal Charles G. Finney.
I was surprised by Howe's nearly hagiographical tone here, but nonetheless, I hope the stories of people like Finney find a larger evangelical audience. I do not have any desire to obscure evangelicalism's myriad failings, but I do want evangelicals to know that they have antecedents beyond the White supremacist South. We want to reform evangelicalism. Reformers often ground the legitimacy of their efforts in a certain  narrative of the past. Often mythologized, such narratives nonetheless do important work. They provide a usable past for those seeking to change the future. Justice-loving evangelicals need to know that they have a usable past, and they barely even need any mythology to lay claim to it.