Friday, July 26, 2013

Has There Ever Been A Time When White Americans Weren't In Denial?

In the wake of recent events there has been a flood of commentary that is ignorant, wrongheaded, or racist. But I've tried hard to avoid getting too caught up in that. I think it's better to focus on broader data so we can see that this is much worse than a case of a few prominent pundits saying offensive things.

The Washington Post has some new polling data on how American view the justice system. Here's the question: "Do you think blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system or not?" A majority of Whites, 54%, answer yes, while only 41% answer the question correctly.

As Tim Wise has noted, this is a pattern among White Americans, and it's been going on now for generations. For over 50 years Gallup has periodically asked Whites if they think Blacks have as good a chance for education and housing as they do. In 1962, when White supremacist schooling was still explicit in much of the country, 94% of Whites said Blacks had equal education opportunities. As of 2008, when White kids continue to receive higher funding on average, 80% of Whites continued to claim equal opportunity. On housing, it is the same story, with 85% of Whites saying Blacks do not face more discrimination than they do. Even on the question of police practices, only 36% of Whites said Blacks are treated unfairly.

The point of all this data is to show that the pundits and media figures who have said so many false and racist things in recent weeks are not the problem. They represent the problem. The great majority of Whites are in denial. A society in denial is not equipped to recognize, much less fight, racism. If this data is accurate, though few Whites admit to being racist, 80% or more are not anti-racist. Put another way, when 80% of us look at racist practices and profess not to see them, we're demonstrating pretty conclusively that we're not actually against racism.

And we shouldn't stop there. Those of us who at one time another have been in that 80% must ask ourselves why we believed such blatantly false things. Sometimes, of course, people are simply mistaken. But we usually don't believe truly absurd things unless there is something in it for us. We're usually trying to protect something. If nothing else, it certainly is a lot more comfortable for Whites to believe that we don't have more opportunity than others.

As I've said before recently, for people caught in that denial I will not offer statistics to try to break it. That's not my job any more than it's my job to argue with people who think we didn't land on the moon. Because these basic facts about racial inequality infringe on our view of ourselves, our history, and our country, there is a strong incentive for us to embrace lies. Becoming free is a matter of experiences and learning and repentance over a period of years. It's not a matter of being clobbered over the head with statistics.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How I'm Living My Faith Now

We had a deeply refreshing church service today. We have an open mic every week but I rarely speak, perhaps every four months or so. Probably less. Anyway, I didn't plan to get up today, but it felt right to do so. I'll try to tell you what I told the church. So here's a rough sense of what I said. I can't really remember it so some stuff is missing and other stuff is added in because it seems right at the moment.

I'm not here to make a political statement. You know, we serve a God of justice. I've felt a great heaviness for the past week, since the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I don't care what you think about that case in particular, but we know we live in a society that falls short of God's justice, a society in which justice is often dealt along racial lines, with things like racial profiling and discrimination. I felt so heavy after the verdict and I felt such a longing for justice, compounded by the knowledge that the injustice I deplored was inside me. It wasn't just something that I could look out at and rail against. It was part of me and I was part of it.

I came across Isaiah 59, and found that it describes people who feel justice is far away, but the very injustice they hate is inside them too. It says "surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, but our iniquities have separated us from our God and our hands are stained with blood and our fingers with guilt...So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us."

The chapter goes on to talk about the lack of integrity in the culture, the breakdown of any empathy or compassion, the rise of oppression. Then it says, "So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found..." That's how I felt. And then it gets amazing because it describes God reacting to this situation:
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
Now the injustice is so severe that a Warrior God emerges, a God of wrath, a great and terrifying force that the poor and oppressed need not fear at all.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak...According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes...For he will come like a pent-up flood.
To do what? Justice. This is an astounding image. God is not blind to the injustice. He is not indifferent to it. In fact he is appalled by it and is looking for someone, anyone, who is willing to intervene. His seemingly detached stance is a mirage. He is getting ready, so that when he comes it will be like a pent-up flood that sweeps all before it,  that is all the more ferocious for having been so long in coming. He will come to set things right. To set things right. To do justice.

In the meantime, we can do what we can to join in that project. We must.

I'm pretty sure God lives every day with a broken heart. I kept telling myself in the first few nights after the verdict that I was being absurd. But the pain that I felt was such that I viscerally knew in those moments that God either does not exist, or he is weeping over us every day as he prepares to set things right in what is--somehow and for some reason--the right time.

Anyway, after speaking I was glad I had done it, especially since it turned out I was the last one to stand up before the "sermon," and our leader was planning to use the Trayvon Martin case as his starting point. One of our White church leaders spoke about his racial experience as a young White man who only began to see his privilege and racism through a years-long journey of personal experience. Sound familiar? Personal experience marks us all more than anything else, and so we spoke to each other at our tables from our experience.

It was refreshing -- after a week of hearing pundits and politicians and facebookers (like me) rant about this stuff -- to sit down and talk about these things not because they are political issues but because they are Christian issues. One of the things that came through so clearly is the need for White Christians in particular to admit privilege, to repent of arrogance, and listen. We do this not because it is politically correct or socially expedient to do so, but because it is Christian to do so.

It is that failure of the majority of Whites to listen, the refusal to understand, that I believe has added so much hurt on top of the specific incidents of the Trayvon Martin case. We treat (and I say we because I have done it) African American perspectives with contempt. Many of us Whites will talk about race hustling and political grandstanding and hypocrisy and a dozen other things if only it will allow us to avoid acknowledging the broken hearted people standing right in front of us. When some sign of empathy would mean so much, we act offended by the idea that we should have empathy for them. At some deep-down level, we always find a reason why Black perspectives don't count. Now, if we don't recognize these attitudes, we have a case of that frequent companion to failures of empathy: denial.

The other refreshing experience this weekend was the Justice For Trayvon rally here in Akron on Saturday. I went to it, took pictures, and posted them on Facebook. Of course I was grandstanding. But that's part of the point. No one in the local or national media cared to report on the rally here, and social media is one way to spread the word. Had a couple hundred people stopped traffic or broken some windows we would have had some press right quick. A peaceful rally is not very exciting.

This rally was everything conservative Whites claim to want from Black Americans. The spirit was peaceful. The cry was for justice and peace in all neighborhoods, not just in Sanford Florida. Pastors spoke of coming together across racial lines. Elderly Black men spoke of the sacrifices of their ancestors and wondered if the current generation was living up to them. They demanded more personal responsibility.

None of this will quell the propaganda of Fox News. This will not cause Rush Limbaugh to regret his wasted life of racism and hatred. More importantly, it won't cause the mainstream, the majority of American Whites who tell pollsters Blacks just need to take responsibility and get to work, to rethink their views. That's because our views our too self-serving, too useful to us, to be dismissed on something as flimsy as overwhelming evidence. If the Black community is already taking responsibility, is already America's moral leader, is already fighting to rebuild families and communities, then where does that leave us? Why does the violence and poverty persist? We White folks can't afford to think along this line, because now we're calling America itself into question. We're questioning White supremacy. Many of us are too invested in Whiteness to make that leap. We might lose too much, and what we would gain seems unclear. The Gospel itself feels submerged, lacking power in our lives, as we unconsciously but desperately cling to Whiteness as our king.

I went to the rally Saturday for lots of reasons, most of them bad. But I did know I wanted to be where Jesus was.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

President Obama's Statement

Large segments of white society are more committed to tranquility and the status quo than to justice and humanity and equality...

Where there is darkness crimes will be committed. The guilty one is not merely he who commits a crime but he who caused the darkness.

          --Dr. Martin Luther King, 1967

This, to me, is the subtext for President Obama's remarks yesterday:
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is na├»ve about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. 
We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
I wish we lived in a society in which the President could be even more direct. Even as he made the problems and responsibilities of Black Americans explicit, the complicity of Whites was only implicitly acknowledged. I am grateful the President said what he did and I think it is enormously positive, but he still had to employ a double standard to prevent Whites from freaking out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What Should White Parents Tell Our Kids About Race?

A heartwarming video of kids' reactions to a "controversial" Cheerios commercial has gone viral. The commercial depicts an interracial couple, a black man and a white woman, with a beautiful daughter. It provoked a storm of racist comments online, but in this video kids respond quite differently. They like the commercial and express first surprise, and then incredulity that anyone would find it controversial. As I said, it is genuinely heartwarming.

I didn't have the heart to rain on anyone's Facebook parade, especially since it would confirm that I am just incurably grumpy and always find a reason to be gloomy about even good things. That's not how I see it, though, and I hope you'll let me explain. I don't think I would have thought anything of that video if it weren't for the job I do. I would have simply laughed and cried and joined in the group hug. The next generation will deliver us! That is the message of the video. But my job involves working with a lot of poor White children across the age range represented in this video.

The gap between that carefully edited video of carefully selected children and the real world I see here on the ground in northeast Ohio is huge. Despite my professed belief that racism is still a significant problem in American life, my wife and I have been shocked by the anti-Black attitudes expressed by numerous White children we work with. Their statements are all the more remarkable because they come out without any prompting from us. It's not as if we're initiating random conversations about their racial attitudes.

In my experience the range of attitudes among the poor White children here run from hostility to ignorance. Most don't have a sense of what racism is, and few if any seem to be truly anti-racist in their outlook.

Even if the kids we see in that video were representative of the next generation, we could still expect more problems ahead. It is good that these children readily accept two individuals who love each other. But that acceptance does not necessarily mean they will be equipped to deal with a world of systemic disparities and inequality across racial groups. More on this below.

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.

If there's anything that could safely be called a historical law, it is that the privileged class of a given society inevitably attributes the degradation of the oppressed class to the internal characteristics of its members. It is equally certain that these justifications of the privileged always appear extremely foolish and self-serving in the cold light of history. So it is with race in the United States. The mindset that says, "I'm not a racist but I think the main thing standing in the way of Black people now is a victim mentality or some sort of cultural problem" is the same mindset that justified slavery. It is the same mindset that explained why segregation was necessary a little while longer. It is the mindset of unconscious racism.

It is a measure of how thoroughly White supremacy has done its work. It has pervaded our minds to the point that racism's horrendous effects are seen not for what they are but as evidence of some sort of problem with Blacks. And so even Whites who were trained to abhor racism begin to subtly ask themselves something along the lines of, "what is wrong with Black people?" To ask the question is to play the White supremacist's game. As I wrote last month:
For most of our history, to put it in blunt and simple terms, the white elite has been carrying on this conversation around the question, "What is wrong with black people?" The basic contours of the answer to that query have remained remarkably stable, because the question mostly answers itself. To ask it is to implicitly absolve the dominant society of any wrongdoing or responsibility... By merely asking what is wrong with black people, we play into a narrative that elides what is wrong with America. This is a country in which black people have had to earn what whites possess as a right. And when they do set out to claim those rights, they're seen as seeking after special privileges. As TNC sums it up:

The neighborhoods where black people shoot at each other are the work of racist social engineering. We know this. But we do not say it, because there is almost no political upside. Instead we hand-wave at racism and pretend that individual black morality might overcome many centuries of wrong.
So while we're telling our kids that racism is wrong, we need to tell them about our country that has never treated people equally. We need to take racism seriously and not speak about it as if it is a vanquished foe. They need to know about the unjust social systems that are reproducing White supremacy in their own generation. We need to tell them where they fit into this. They need to know that they are privileged. We should tell them this not because we've adopted some kind of liberal political correctness, but because our reading of scripture compels us to.

If we don't know about these things, then we have extra work to do. If we think these basic truths are political or "liberal" then we have even more work to do. Allowing Christian principles to supersede the imperatives of Whiteness remains one of the hardest things White American Christians have to do. It doesn't come naturally to us, and most churches will subtly tell us no such project is needed.

Paul certainly understood he was privileged. And he encouraged Christians to think of everything they have as a gift. He declared that boasting is completely illegitimate. We can try to spiritualize these instructions away, but the clear intent is for them to apply to every dimension of our lives. Our kids must think of themselves as recipients of undeserved privilege. This is the Gospel brought to every facet of life. It's not just the knowledge that this privilege is unearned. It is the realization that in a more just world we would not possess it in the first place, and that means we need to deliberately give it up. This too is an ethic that pervades the New Testament. If our kids reject this ethic and think of themselves as hardworking achievers who have earned what they have, they will contribute to the next generation of American racism rather than fighting it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Amid Dramatic Progress, the Basic Issues Remain the Same

Americans who care to express their opinion about recent events would do well to first sit down with a few reputable books on the civil rights movement. Having discarded the mythical version of the civil rights era, the arguments of our time begin to look much clearer and more familiar.

What are we arguing about? We’re arguing about how much progress has been made. Is great progress a ground for declaring victory, or is there a definable goal ahead that we need to strive for? The arguments of conservatives are familiar. Racism is basically dead, they say. Blacks are their own worst enemy, they say. Black culture is a bigger problem than White racism, they say. Don’t provoke more protests, they say. Stay off the streets or it could lead to violence. Stop stirring up racial tensions, they say. All of these arguments are old.

All of these arguments were used during the civil rights movement. But they weren’t used by the movement. They were used by the people opposing the movement. And now they’re being used again. The only difference is that the people now using them have appropriated the civil rights movement as their own. Some of them are surely knowingly cynical in this endeavor. But many of them, I don’t doubt, honestly think their battle for White privilege follows in the footsteps of the battle for Black liberation.

I wish more people could get a better sense of how murky and confusing the events of the 1960s were, just as they are today. It didn't play out as a tidy morality tale in which the right side was obvious. There were difficult questions about violence and group identity and the pace of change. There were always thoroughly American reasons to oppose Black advances. If you generally find yourself unsympathetic to Black concerns today, it is reasonable to assume you would have situated yourself similarly 50 years ago.

It should give us pause to look back in history and see Whites arguing for a more conservative stance on racial justice on precisely the same grounds they do now: progress. Don't push for civil rights, they said in the 1960s, look at the progress that has been made since slavery. Don't push for equality now, they say, look at the progress that has been made since the 1960s. It's so easy for the more powerful group to fixate on progress without ever contemplating how it was achieved: by aggressively pushing against those who said just wait, just be patient. Progress is invoked by conservatives not to spur us on to greater commitments to justice, but to forestall them. It's not hard to understand why. A more racially just world is one in which White people have less power.

Learning some history would definitely help. But it isn’t enough. Whites must stop assuming we have an equal say in these matters. If the debate is about the extent of ongoing racism in America, what makes us think we would know anything about it? If racism isn’t present, we obviously won’t see it. But if it is present, we wouldn’t necessarily see it either. That’s the whole point. Whites are not the ones experiencing the racism.

Why, on this topic in particular, do so many Whites feel the need to aggressively assert their opinions born of their nearly nonexistent experience? Why are Black opinions so suspect? It is as if Whites think we provide some sort of neutral voice on racial questions. In reality, our combination of ignorance and vested interests make us extremely biased. Blacks are biased too of course, but at least they know something of which they speak.

Even conservative whites can sometimes be compelled to admit that Whites as a group have never before in American history been on the right side of racial controversies. But somehow in this generation, they're sure, they've managed to get it right.

Progress has been made. But it remains an open question whether what the civil rights movement fought for -- full equality, the eradication of racial privilege, full participation in American life -- will ever be achieved, or if it is even possible under American institutions that were set up for a White supremacist state.

Some of us try to always keep this ultimate goal in mind. There are others who seem to always find a reason to oppose any concrete effort to get to that goal. There is always an explanation of how it is counterproductive or comes with too many costs. The pressing reality of injustice is put off for fear of interfering with nebulous ideas like "freedom" and "limited government" and "the American way." These nice ideas aren't worth protecting if they don't work for all our citizens. We're over 200 years into this project, and we're still waiting.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Sin That Can't Be Named

My confession of racism a couple days ago was unusual enough that I think a number of people might not have known quite what to make of it. I've covered similar ground before though, first in a personal narrative three years ago, and again last year when I explored some of the roots of my sin. But I've never been quite so explicit. And that's why I wanted to publish a post that could make the same point, but without the self-incrimination. I was embarrassed and afraid to publish that post as it was. And that's why I had to do it.

I don't pretend my motives were pure. In fact, my "confession" was a fairly obvious attempt to give fellow White Christians the space to let themselves consider the possibilities of their own condition. That's not to say I was insincere. Far from it. But my high-minded vision involved some lonely soul in a random corner of blog-land reading that particular post and having an ah-hah moment. But that's not really the way change works.

Still, I would do it again, because racism has become the sin that must not be named. Even mature Christians who can freely confess to problems of anger, pride, and even that awkward one--lust--have trouble confessing racism. And that actually understates the problem. For many Christians racism is not thought of as something that could be confessed. It is beyond belief, beyond contemplation. We often don't even have the categories, the mental or spiritual tools, to consider it.

In my faith tradition there is a deep-seated theological and cultural bias that distorts the Gospel and the biblical message, causing us to be hyper-aware of sins that are personal and affect the individual, while missing sins that are collective, systemic, and sociological. Racism is one of those sins. Searching our hearts for personal prejudice, including the deep implicit kind I referred to earlier this week, is important. But if that is all we do we're missing the point. After all, most scholars lean toward the view that the kind of personal prejudice we call racism only began as an after the fact justification for an unjust social order, namely slavery. Our present social order has descended from that foundation and remains systemically unjust. Practically speaking, and I believe in God's eyes, if we only examine ourselves for personal prejudice while passively supporting the unjust social order, we are practicing the sin of racism.

Yet, for complex reasons that are worth a discussion of their own, there is an extraordinary defensiveness around the question of racism. This defensiveness doesn't just block us as Christians from confessing racism. It precludes even  the serious consideration of it. It prevents us from giving racism the kind of contemplation and study that we readily devote to other problems.

I started thinking on this line today after hearing a passionate Christian radio host discussing the Zimmerman verdict. A White man, he began the show talking about how we all have blind spots, and the nature of blind spots is that you don't know you have them. So, he said, he and his listeners would talk to each other today and poke at each other's blind spots. Ok, so far so good. He was also adamant that a lot of inflammatory language was being thrown around, and that needed to stop. Ok, that's fine too.

Then, before offering his opinion on the verdict, his voice suddenly quickened and grew louder, sounding almost angry. This is a direct quote of what he said:
I've proven-- anyone who's listened to me for years, that color is not an issue to me. Issues are the issue. And anyone who accuses me of being racist, is a racist. That is a racist, false, ugly accusation, with zero basis in truth.
I promise I'm not joking. This is a direct quote of what he said in a show devoted to exploring blind spots and restoring civility. These are not the words of a mature Christian who has explored his soul and found it pleasing to God. These are words of fear. These are the words that spring up, unbidden, from an unexamined heart. Can you imagine a respected Christian figure saying something similar about a different sin? "Anyone who accuses me of being arrogant, is arrogant!" "Anyone who accuses me of being materialistic, is materialistic!" It doesn't even make sense.

I've been around enough to know that this man is normal. That's why I'm not out to name him and beat up on him. He's a normal White Christian. And that's the problem.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How Should Christians Respond?

I'm going to see if I can do this right. I hesitate to say anything on this topic because the refusal of most Christians to echo the blatant racism of the conservative right is hugely important and positive. So I don't want to offer criticism harshly. That said, well, let's see what happens.

First of all, Trip Lee already has this well covered. But I do think there is more to say. What I like so much about Trip Lee's post is that he manages to be Gospel-centered and truly Christian without retreating into vague platitudes. He is up front. He is honest. He's not sweeping anything under the rug. He's confident the Gospel can deal with the world as it is, not the one we wish we had.

From where I sit, the predominant Christian response from the tradition in which I grew up, White evangelicalism, appears to be lacking in similar courage. For example, I tuned in to the first few minutes of a Christian radio show in which the host said they were going to have "a redemptive conversation" about the issue. For him, that meant that he was going to be unfailingly civil, and he was not going to take sides. My sense is that this posture describes a lot of White evangelicals. As with that radio host, there is pain and sadness, and discomfort with the passions that have been released, and there is a feeling that a studied neutrality is called for. A calm reasonableness. Don't take sides.

But there's a problem with that. We serve a God who takes sides. The controversial nature of such a statement is itself evidence of the theological rot that has pervaded the evangelical community. Our God comes through the pages of scripture as a God who is unequivocally and always for the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the oppressed against their oppressors, the powerless against the powerful, the impoverished against the privileged.

Many White evangelicals can grudgingly accept this, but are loath to apply it. Because in the United States all of these dualities are racialized. In our history the oppressed and their oppressors have had a certain color. The overwhelming weight of the evidence and the cry of personal testimonies like those of Tripp Lee says that they still do. So when we believe our task is simply to be civil and see the good in both sides, we adopt a neutrality that God himself doesn't abide.

In the book of Acts, when the Hellenistic Jews were being mistreated by the Hebraic Jews, the Apostles didn't say, "Gee, I really see both sides here." They unequivocally fixed the problem by appointing seven men to remove the injustice. And guess what? All seven were Hellenistic Jews. Talk about taking sides.

It would be easy to be neutral if this were merely political. And it seems that many Christians think that's what it is. Many appear to be unable to imagine how hurtful this whole episode has been. We hear mainstream respectable people openly defending Zimmerman on moral grounds. We read people blaming Blacks for America's racial problems. We see people treating this as just another partisan battle. And they can't understand that we're writing about this through our tears. They have the audacity to claim that our broken hearts are nothing more than cheap posturing.

Any time the strong are arrayed against the weak, God is not neutral. To stand back and adopt neutrality, however civilly it is done, is to lose sight of our God who is always closer to the downtrodden. And in our America of 2013, there ought not be any mystery about who the downtrodden are. An inability to see that is not just socially obtuse, it is a failure to understand the Gospel itself.

The Jury Was Ignorant

"I think all of us thought race did not play a role," the juror said . "We never had that discussion."
               --Juror B37 in her first public comments since the trial.

The night of the verdict I said that the jury did its job responsibly under the constraints of Florida law. I didn't really have any evidence of that. I just desperately wanted it to be true. We now know it to be false.

If juror B37's description is an accurate accounting of what happened in that jury room, this is unconscionable. Had their been jurors of more diverse backgrounds in that room, at least the discussion could have occurred. The exclusion of Black jury members was a grave injustice. People claiming it is not about race would do well to think about why the defense worked so hard and managed to strike every potential Black jury member from the final jury.

Juror B37 also constructed a narrative of the one blank part in that evening's events for which we only have Zimmerman's testimony. How did the fight start?
"I think George got in a little bit too deep, which he shouldn't have been there. But Trayvon decided that he wasn't going to let him scare him ... and I think Trayvon got mad and attacked him," she said.
It is disturbing that a member of the jury embraced this narrative. If we just take the evidence presented from both sides, we know that Zimmerman followed Martin, first in his truck and then on foot. We know that Trayvon was scared. We know that a fight started and Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman, apparently winning the fight. What we don't have any evidence for from either side is how the fight actually started.

Even as juror B37 says race had nothing to do with it, she embraces a concocted story that absolutely depends on it. Based on the evidence presented by both sides immediately before and after the fight, Ockham's Razor would indicate that Zimmerman confronted Martin who, fearing for his life, fought hard and was winning. But Zimmerman says he had lost sight of Martin, and was suddenly and viciously attacked from behind. A scared teenager running from an armed man doubled back, sneaked up on him from behind, and attacked. In the mind of Juror B37, that implausible tale was rendered reasonable by the fact of Trayvon's blackness.

I had thought the jury rendered a not guilty verdict because of the severe restraints Florida's unjust laws put them under. But this makes it seem that they actually had sympathy for Zimmerman and did not seriously question their own implicit racism. Sigh.

It does raise the question of what a responsible jury would have done. I could still see a not guilty verdict based on the extraordinary instructions written to the jury. But I suppose the right thing to do in that case would be to practice some sort of civil disobedience and say that as a juror you refuse to base your decision on an unjust law. I don't know.

The Problem with "Justice For Trayvon"

It's too late for that. Trayvon is dead. Making George Zimmerman's life more miserable is not going to bring justice. That's the problem with these protests and the petition from the NAACP and others for the justice department to bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Under the laws we have, it's just not going to be a strong case.

We live in a legal regime where private citizens and police forces across the country can do just about whatever they want, and as long as they don't shout the n-word while they're doing it there's supposedly no proof of racial profiling or bias.

So asking the justice department to come in and prosecute a case that it would almost certainly lose is not productive. Don't get me wrong. The protests should go on. They should get bigger. They should shut down traffic and paralyze normal life and make the authorities act. But they can't be a backward looking quest for justice for a boy to whom it has already been denied. They must be a constructive campaign for something that can actually make a difference for the future.

The NAACP and other leaders need to trust and hope that the American people are smart enough and passionate enough to rally for a constructive campaign, in Trayvon's name, that goes beyond Trayvon. Justice has already been denied to him. For him it is too late. But it is not too late for a nationwide campaign to repeal every stand your ground law. Or a campaign for a constitutional amendment to outlaw racial profiling. Or a campaign to end racially discriminatory application of the war on drugs and racist sentencing disparities.

If the American people can only rally around "justice for Trayvon," we're saying we happen to care about a high profile case but can't agree on a campaign to end the deep systems and practices that produced that case in the first place.

The Problem with Focusing on "Race Relations"

One of the things that really bothers me about the way the media has discussed the fallout to this case is the use of the term "race relations" and all that it implies. From conservative media all the way to the New York Times this phrase is being used as we lament that "race relations" are polarized, that Americans are on edge, that we still have so far to go in understanding each other.

This is not wholly wrong. It is important that we get along. But this fixation on "race relations" reflects the persistent tendency of Whites to define the state of racial justice in America by the level of outward comity between the races. If Blacks appear to be calm, then everything is okay. If people aren't yelling at each other or marching in the streets, we're making progress. This is not just simplistic; by definition it has no connection to actual racial justice. The presence or absence of protests and tense feelings tells us nothing about the backward course of school segregation. It tells us nothing about the quiet and persistent bias in the justice system. It tells us nothing about rampant discrimination in housing and employment. It tells us nothing about whether we're actually getting closer to justice.

Are you the sort of person who cares about these things on a daily basis, or do you only fret about "race relations" when some national anger disturbs your quiet little corner of the world? We need to be people who care about racial justice day in and day out, and that means defining our progress by something much different than surface-level calm. What good "race relations" would look like is a country where there is literally no advantage to being born White. Period.

As Jason Sokol writes in his history of White southerners during the civil rights era, what really provoked support for the key civil rights laws was not a revelation of the daily injustices that Blacks faced. It was rather violence and disorder in the streets in a few high profile spectacles, brought into people's living rooms through their TV screens. There is little evidence that the civil rights movement caused Whites en masse to recognize and turn against their own privilege. On the whole, we just wanted the violence, the disorder, the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, to go away.

White Americans have never in our history shown a consistent commitment to racial justice. Turn off the cameras and let us be told that Black people are happy, and we will go merrily on our way. It doesn't matter what is done quietly, persistently, day after day. Just don't disturb our peace.

The Best Reactions to the Verdict

There has been some really superb writing on the Zimmerman verdict in the last 24 hours. I thought Ta-Nehisi Coates' first post after the verdict was detached-- right on its merits, but surely not all he was thinking and feeling. He came back with a second post early yesterday morning that deserves to be read in full far and wide. Read it here. A sampling of his tour de force:
We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years...there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy. 
That last line is an incredibly brilliant distillation of the issue. Meanwhile Jamelle Bouie destroyed the popular complaint about "black on black" crime:
The idea that “black-on-black” crime is the real story in Martin’s killing isn’t a novel one...But there’s a huge problem with attempt to shift the conversation: There’s no such thing as “black-on-black” crime. Yes, from 1976 to 2005, 94 percent of black victims were killed by black offenders, but that racial exclusivity was also true for white victims of violent crime—86 percent were killed by white offenders. Indeed, for the large majority of crimes, you’ll find that victims and offenders share a racial identity, or have some prior relationship to each other. 
[That's because crime is] driven by opportunism and proximity; If African-Americans are more likely to be robbed, or injured, or killed by other African-Americans, it’s because they tend to live in the same neighborhoods as each other. Residential statistics bear this out (PDF); blacks are still more likely to live near each other or other minority groups than they are to whites. And of course, the reverse holds as well—whites are much more likely to live near other whites than they are to minorities and African-Americans in particular.
Elsewhere, Bouie questioned whether justice in a larger sense is even possible in the country we have now:
There’s a reason George Zimmerman felt confident enough to confront Trayvon Martin and tell police that he feared for his life. In the America we’ve constructed, blacks are like the minions in a bad action movie. They’re both disposable and dangerous. 
If this sounds hyperbolic, the consider the following. In the United States, implicit association tests find that white participants are more likely to register a threatening affect when presented with black faces. Likewise, a wide range of surveys find widespread anti-black prejudice. All white juries are more likely to convict black defendants, than white ones, and in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, white defendants are more likely to find acquittal when the victims are black. African Americans are arrested and convicted for drug crimes at far greater rates than their white counterparts—despite lower rates of drug use—and blacks are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement, due to patterns of policing (see: stop and frisk in New York City). More than a third of all people affected by felony disenfranchisement laws are black. 
If you can look at all of this and conclude that the system doesn’t have an embedded bias against blacks, I don’t know what to say. Because what’s clear to me is that, for all the real progress we’ve made, this country has yet to relinquish its long-standing hostility to blackness.

Finally, Eugene Robinson offers a devastating critique of the "ho-hum" approach of the local authorities and its implications:
The assumption underlying their ho-hum approach to the case was that Zimmerman had the right to self-defense but Martin -- young, male, black -- did not. The assumption was that Zimmerman would fear for his life in a hand-to-hand struggle but Martin -- young, male, black -- would not. 
If anyone wonders why African-Americans feel so passionately about this case, it's because we know that our 17-year-old sons are boys, not men. It's because we know their adolescent bravura is just that -- an imitation of manhood, not the real thing. We know how frightened our sons would be, walking home alone on a rainy night and realizing they were being followed. We know how torn they would be between a child's fear and a child's immature idea of manly behavior. We know how they would struggle to decide the right course of action, flight or fight.
And we know that a skinny boy armed only with candy, no matter how big and bad he tries to seem, does not pose a mortal threat to a healthy adult man who outweighs him by 50 pounds and has had martial arts training (even if the lessons were mostly a waste of money). We know that the boy may well have threatened the man's pride, but likely not his life. How many murders-by-sidewalk have you heard of recently? Or ever?
The conversation we need to have is about how black men, even black boys, are denied the right to be young, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes. We need to talk about why, for example, black men are no more likely than white men to smoke marijuana but nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it -- and condemned to a dead-end cycle of incarceration and unemployment. I call this racism. What do you call it?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Thoughts for Sunday

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
    nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated
    you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
    so that he will not hear.
For your hands are stained with blood,
    your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely,
    and your tongue mutters wicked things.
No one calls for justice;
    no one pleads a case with integrity.
They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;
    they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
They hatch the eggs of vipers
    and spin a spider’s web.
Whoever eats their eggs will die,
    and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.
Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;
    they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their deeds are evil deeds,
    and acts of violence are in their hands.
Their feet rush into sin;
    they are swift to shed innocent blood.
They pursue evil schemes;
    acts of violence mark their ways.
The way of peace they do not know;
    there is no justice in their paths.
They have turned them into crooked roads;
    no one who walks along them will know peace.
So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
10 Like the blind we grope along the wall,
    feeling our way like people without eyes.
At midday we stumble as if it were twilight;
    among the strong, we are like the dead.
11 We all growl like bears;
    we moan mournfully like doves.
We look for justice, but find none;
    for deliverance, but it is far away.
12 For our offenses are many in your sight,
    and our sins testify against us.
Our offenses are ever with us,
    and we acknowledge our iniquities:
13 rebellion and treachery against the Lord,
    turning our backs on our God,
inciting revolt and oppression,
    uttering lies our hearts have conceived.
14 So justice is driven back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
    honesty cannot enter.
15 Truth is nowhere to be found,
    and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.
The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
18 According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
19 From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.
20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.
--Isaiah 59

Racism is More Innocuous and Pervasive Than You Think

One of the saddest things about this case is the way it becomes a predictable stage for the pervasive callousness and ignorance of White Americans to be expressed. Texas Governor Rick Perry said today, "I think our justice system is color-blind." How you feel about that simple statement says a lot about you and it probably predicts how you view this case.

To those who don't understand where we're coming from, try to grasp this. I'm not picking on Governor Perry. Rather, I'm using his words precisely because they're so representative. In this bland, simple statement--"I think our justice system is color-blind"--American racism is epitomized. These simple words are offered without any proof whatsoever, and the power of our wishful thinking is such that they have the ring of common sense.

The other angle on it is that this is a fundamentally mysterious issue that we all have to decide for ourselves however we wish. "I think our justice system is color-blind." Or "I think our justice system is color-blind." As if there is no evidence to be had. As if our belief has no consequences. To believe that it is color-blind when it is not is to do added violence to its victims. People who in other respects insist on the truth--inviolate and absolute and knowable--suddenly become champions of agnosticism when their world of White privilege is threatened.

"Of course our justice system is color-blind." In America in 2013, you're allowed to say that in polite company. You're allowed to offer it up without backing it up at all, and among most White crowds you'll get nods of agreement. It's common sense.

That's what racism can do. It can take utter fictions and turn them into common sense. It can render otherwise normal people impervious to evidence. It takes the burden of proof away from those defending the justice system and back on those of us who simply ask that the facts be acknowledged. The burden of proof rests with those who say that now, for the first generation in American history, we have achieved a color-blind justice system. Tell me how that happened. Show me the evidence.

I am not here at this time to offer statistics to prove the justice system is racist. If you think our justice system is color-blind, statistics are not what you need. Because they will not convince you. Repentance comes through personal experience and the weight of the Spirit of God himself bearing down on you. I will not try to disprove your racist faith. I will bide my time and trust in the God of history who will bend all things to his will.


Updated with more reactions. Sunday, 4:24

The President:

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.  Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America.  I know this case has elicited strong passions.  And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.  But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.  I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.  And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.  We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.  We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.  As citizens, that’s a job for all of us.  That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.

Roxanne Gay:

Black men and women, black boys and girls, will continue to live in a world where they are guilty until proven innocent, and where their lives matter less in a justice system that is anything but blind to race. None of us, in fact, are blind to race. When people say, “I don’t see race,” they are actually saying, “I don’t want to see race and thereby face the world as it really is.” It is the most sincere expression of privilege there is.

We need to consider the bigger picture. What happened to Trayvon Martin is not a problem with Florida. We can joke about the Sunshine State and its supposed backwardness. We can pretend Zimmerman’s acquittal wouldn’t have happened elsewhere. That simply isn’t true. Though Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law contributed significantly to Zimmerman’s acquittal, the root of the problem reaches far deeper and stretches all across these United States. We must forget the convenient narrative that racism only thrives in the South. Racism is an American problem. We all need to stop trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility.

Mike Lupica:

Zimmerman walks now, leaves court a free man, does that in a state with its stand-your-ground laws where you thought the prosecution was fighting a losing game from the start. It no longer matters that Trayvon Martin, unarmed teenager, was supposed to have the same stand-your-ground rights that Zimmerman did. Only it never mattered once they were on the ground and Zimmerman got his gun out and shot him. If you think justice was really served in that courtroom on this night, you were watching the wrong movie...

The defense did a good enough job of convincing the six women on the jury that it was Zimmerman who was the real victim on that night, that it was Trayvon Martin’s job to walk away or run away, that he had no rights once Zimmerman had him in his sights.

Paul Campos

Suppose Trayvon Martin had been a 230-pound 30-year-old black man, with a loaded gun in his jacket. Suppose Zimmerman had been a 150-pound 17-year-old white kid, who was doing nothing more threatening than walking back from a convenience store to his father’s condo.
Suppose Martin had stalked Zimmerman in his car, until Zimmerman became afraid and tried to elude him. Suppose Martin had gotten out of his car and pursued Zimmerman. Suppose this led to some sort of altercation in which the big scary black man ended up with a bloody nose and some scratches on the back of his head, and the scared skinny (and unarmed) white kid had ended up with a bullet in his heart.

How do you suppose the big scary black man’s claim of “self-defense” would have gone over with a jury made up almost entirely of white women?  But of course this is America, which means that the scary figure in this story is the skinny unarmed teenager, because in America pretty much any black male over the age of 12 in this sort of situation is going to be presumed  to be the ”aggressor,” the “thug” – in short,” the real criminal,” until he’s proved innocent, which he won’t be, even if he’s now a dead, still unarmed teenager. And his killer is a grown man who provokes a fight with an otherwise harmless kid, starts losing it, and then shoots the kid dead.

Because this is America, pointing out that a black boy can be shot with impunity by a more or less white man because many white Americans are terrified by black boys and men is called “playing the race card.”  The race card is what the people who benefit politically from the fact that many white Americans are terrified by black boys and men call any reference to the fact that race continues to play an overwhelmingly important, and overwhelmingly invidious, role in American culture in general. And in the criminal justice system in particular.

Trayvon Martin was stalked by George Zimmerman because he was black. Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black. George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin because the boy Zimmerman killed was black.

If you deny these things, you are either a liar or an idiot, or possibly both.

Nothing above requires the conclusion that the jury’s verdict was wrong as a matter of law. Florida’s laws, in their majestic equality, extend to people of all races the right to engage in vigilante killing that eliminates the sole witness to that killing.  To point this out is neither a defense of those laws, nor a claim that they will in fact be applied equally.  In other words, to blame this jury in this situation is to miss the point. 

Andrew Cohen:

What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.

Jelani Cobb:

During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors stepped forward to contribute the funds that underwrote their efforts, there is a sense that George Zimmerman was the victim.

O’Mara’s statement echoed a criticism that began circulating long before Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other. Thousands of black boys die at the hands of other African Americans each year, but the black community, it holds, is concerned only when those deaths are caused by whites. It’s an appealing argument, and widespread, but simplistic and obtuse. It’s a belief most easily held when you’ve not witnessed peace rallies and makeshift memorials, when you’ve turned a blind eye to grassroots organizations like the Interrupters in Chicago working valiantly to stem the tide of violence in the city. It is the thinking of people who’ve never wondered why African Americans disproportionately support strict gun control legislation. The added quotient of outrage in cases like this one stems not from the belief that a white murderer is somehow worse than a black one, but from the knowledge that race determines whether fear, history, and public sentiment offer that killer a usable alibi.


Last year--after Zimmerman was arrested--I wrote something hoping that he would be convicted. A commenter wrote in to object, saying that arguing for his arrest was justifiable. Arguing for his conviction was not. I acknowledged the point at the time. The wisdom of it seems even more appropriate today...

The idea that Zimmerman got out the car to check the street signs, was ambushed by 17-year old kid with no violent history who told him he "you're going to die tonight" strikes me as very implausible.  It strikes me as much more plausible that Martin was being followed by a strange person, that the following resulted in a confrontation, that Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman in the confrontation, and Zimmerman then shot him.  But I didn't see the confrontation. No one else really saw the confrontation. Except George Zimmerman. I'm not even clear that situation I outlined would result in conviction...

I think the message of this episode is unfortunate. By Florida law, in any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living.
An intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did--buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law and then wait. 

Circling back to the first point, it's worth remembering that caused a national outcry was not the possibility of George Zimmerman being found innocent, but that there would be no trial at all.  This case was really unique because of what happened with the Sanford police. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you know the name "Jordan Davis." Then ask yourself how many protests and national media reports you've seen about him. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Time for Grieving

My on the spot reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is, first, just a heavy sadness. It was exactly what I expected, but that doesn't really make it easier. The reaction on Twitter (which skews young and minority) is disbelief and confusion. People are angry and they don't understand how such a miscarriage of justice could occur. So I think it is enormously important for people to understand that the jury did its job responsibly. I know very little about the law. I defer to the experts, and they seem to unanimously agree that the prosecution did a poor job making a convincing case that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin under Florida law.

So go ahead and be sad. Go ahead and be angry. But not at the jury. Not at the process. The process worked as well it could have. But it was poisoned at the root by an unjust law. And this same sort of law is on the books in many other states. There has been too much attention paid to the details of this case and not enough to the larger injustices it put in such stark relief. These stand your ground laws need to be repealed. That is much more important than a conviction for this one man.

I think what makes this so hard to take is that most of us cannot imagine this alternative scenario: the events are exactly the same, as is all the murky evidence, but the 17 year old boy is a middle class white kid and the killer is a poor black man, and no arrest is made. I think nearly every honest American knows in their gut that an arrest would have been made. That's hard to take.

It's doubly hard because of the way this crazy spectacle exposes people for what they really are. The conservative media has rallied around the view that what Zimmerman did was not just legal but morally sound. It produces such a deep sadness in me. Suffice it to say, if you are on Zimmerman's "side" so to speak, I honestly don't want to know about it. I don't know if I could handle it.

There isn't any neutrality. There isn't an objective view. We are all of us predisposed to lean toward one side or another. The United States was founded as a White supremacist state. That explicit purpose has been disavowed, but White privilege remains systemic and pervasive.  Are you for it or against it? And what are you going to do about it?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Don't We Take the South's Devastation More Seriously?

I'm not sure how I missed this, but apparently for several years now the classic Civil War death toll of around 620,000 has been the subject of significant revision. The actual number of dead looks to have been something like 750,000. I have little to say about this beyond putting these numbers in some comparative context.

If we had an equally deadly war today, over 7 million Americans would die. As popular as the Civil War is compared to other events in American history, on the whole we still don't grasp how petty and insignificant most of the events, even the wars, of our lifetimes are compared to the Civil War. If you wanted to live during the most dramatic and horrific period of American history you missed it by 150 years.

Another interesting way to put the numbers in context is to compare them to World War 1 deaths. France had a famously rough go of it in that war, so much so that pretty much anything that has gone wrong since then has been at one time or another blamed on it. Did French culture succumb to an amorphous demoralization? Well, they were bled white by the Great War, you know. Was the French effort in World War 2 disastrous and embarrassing? Well, they had already lost a generation of young men just two decades before.

But here's the thing: if the new estimates are correct, the South lost a higher percentage of its fighting men in the Civil War than France did in the Great War. Yet there is no comparable discourse around the southern war dead. This seems all the more remarkable when you consider the vast literature on southern distinctiveness, southern exceptionalism, southern identity. Sure, the war experience in general is treated as formative, but a reference to the sheer scale of death as the cause of subsequent maladies or cultural traits is rarely found.