Thursday, August 29, 2013

In Commemoration Speech, Did Obama Serve the Cause of Justice, or Myth?

I wasn't sure what to make of President Obama's speech yesterday at the commemoration of the March on Washington. Parts of it were forthright about the need for further action to combat injustice (and the President actually used that word). And he talked about the need to defeat the (conveniently unnamed) defenders of such injustice. I don't know enough about presidential rhetoric, and perhaps I'm just conditioned by the Bush years, but I was starting to think sitting Presidents don't talk like this.

But then Obama pivoted back to this:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support -- as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
I'm never sure what to make of this coming from Obama. Is it part of his habitual "on the one hand, on the other hand" framing of every issue? Is it what he feels he has to say as the President of all Americans? Or is it, deep down, what he believes? I'm not here to say that there is no truth at all to this paragraph (though Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a must read scathing review, says as much) but I do argue that this rhetoric is received in a certain social and cultural context that renders it, in its essence, untrue.

After suffering a series of severe blows, White regrouped and defeated the civil rights movement. Yet the discourse of Whites ever since has not acknowledged their partial victory. There is, rather, a pervasive set of mental and rhetorical frameworks built around blaming Blacks for their failure to live up to "the Dream," as if Whites have not been standing in their way the whole time. President Obama is aiding and abetting those frameworks.

Perhaps he should have called for specific policies, invoking King's name, urging congress to pass immigration reform in pursuit of King's Dream. Pass a jobs bill in pursuit of King's dream. Pass criminal justice reform in pursuit of King's Dream. Denounce the racist tea party, in honor of King. I don't know. Maybe all hell would break loose if he did that. But I think it would be a good thing if King became more controversial again. King would be appalled by the modern Republican Party. He would denounce it in moral, biblical terms. I think we should get that out in the open and let people draw their own conclusions.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Moral Authority Personified

John Lewis, at yesterday's march on Washington.

It wasn't as large as the original, but it was a big crowd. While these moral giants walk among us, the fake debates about voter "fraud" continue and states like North Carolina pass legislation in the proud American tradition of White tyranny. Those of us on the right side of this fight ought not grant to our opponents the dignity they seek. They don't care about Martin Luther King or anything he stood for, and they need to be called out on it. They are self-deceived. Many of them sincerely believe they agree with the civil rights movement and King's legacy, even as they fight against it.

They claim him as their own even as they despise his living associates. Such is the power of myth. I have never heard a prominent conservative figure criticize Martin Luther King in recent years. Yet John Lewis is widely disparaged. Because of the nature of self-deception, let's be clear about who we're talking about.

We're talking about people who find themselves agreeing with the racial commentary they hear on Fox news. People who think the Republican Party takes a good position on racial issues. People who think talk radio has something worthwhile to say about race. People who read right-wing sites like the Blaze or Breitbart or National Review or, heck, even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and agree with the racial opinions espoused there.

Leave aside what is right or wrong. We're talking about the appropriation of moral authority. All of these outlets are opposed to the civil rights movement, opposed to what King stood for, opposed to one of the only living moral giants of American history, John Lewis. All I ask is that they--and you if you agree with them--stop claiming what is not theirs. Instead of pretending that they agree with what the civil rights movement stood for, these groups need to explain why they, as the intellectual descendants of mid-twentieth century White supremacists, came to have the correct moral view on these issues. And if the White supremacist tradition is the correct moral view, why do they feel the need to claim agreement with the opposing side?

John Stennis, the late segregationist senator I'm studying, would be proud. The precepts of the strategic campaign he and others waged are now so embedded in the fabric of national myth that millions of people who sincerely deplore racism now pursue and support racist policies. I know it is easy to ascribe bad motives to our opponents, but I think the majority of them are genuinely unaware of what they're doing. But then, that's no excuse. After all, most segregationists sincerely believed they had the best interests of Blacks at heart.

Thoughts for Sunday

Several weeks ago I read that the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to drop the modern hymn "In Christ Alone" from its hymnal. The offending line was this: "Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied." The hymnal committee asked the writers if they could change it to "Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified." The writers said no.

I realize that this involves an  objection to a specific theological understanding of the atonement. But more broadly, it reflects a discomfort with the very idea that wrath is a part of God's character. I can understand why people object to the idea of a wrathful God. The thinking goes that God (if he or she or it exists), is a God of love. He loves everyone, and wrath is incompatible with that. This is superficially satisfying, but if you scratch the surface you quickly realize it's incoherent.

A God who only loves is not loving at all. When someone says that they believe God simply loves and that's all there is to it, they think they're being tolerant and open-minded. But I hear the ultimate expression of cultural chauvinism and sheltered privilege. Their idea of God is so monstrous they don't even believe it themselves if pressed to think about it.

We hate and murder and destroy, and God just loves us. We rape and maim and kill, and some vague notion of cosmic love will carry us through and set things right. Racism and oppression run rampant, and our God looks down with indulgence on us all. That is not just myopic; it is disgusting. Does anyone really even believe it, or is it just something we say because it sounds nice? If you really believe a wrathful God is an offensive idea, then why do you get angry at injustice?

If the thought of the wrath of God has never been a great comfort to you, you may have led a sheltered life. If an indulgent, loving God has been sufficient for you, you have yet to explore the depths of your own nature. The Bible says things like, "God is angry with the wicked every day." This is not an embarrassing passage for us modern folks to gloss over. It ought to be comforting! It legitimizes the wrath and longing for justice that we feel. It tells us that God feels it along with us.

(For skeptics, yes, we're now treading close to the problem of evil, another discussion for another time).

And in the Gospel we learn that we're all the same. To put it in absurd yet true terms, none of are so different from Hitler. If a wrathful God is appropriate for history's greatest monsters, through the Gospel we begin to see that it is appropriate for us too. And maybe that's what we have the greatest problem accepting. We don't believe in a wrathful God because we haven't come to grips with who and what we are. We don't believe that we, personally, deserve wrath. That's for the murderers and rapists and slave-traders, not for us. The Gospel pushes back against our self-justification and insists: we're all the same.

Don't get me wrong. God is love. It's just that his wrath helps me to see that.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Conceits of the Rich Exposed

I've been meandering through some of Langston Hughes' work of late. And, in the belief that curated content that's not mine is better than no content at all for this space, I offer up a poem that I really liked:

Rising Waters

To you
Who are the
Foam on the sea
And not the sea--
What of the jagged rocks,
And the waves themselves,
And the force of the mounting waters?
You are
But foam on the sea,
You rich ones--
Not the sea.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Two Steps Forward

This year has at times felt like one body blow after another in the ongoing battle to protect civil rights and expand racial equality. The Supreme Court cut a huge hole out of the Voting Rights Act, and the decades-long process of rolling back gains in affirmative action and school desegregation continues apace. And then there was all the issues swirling around the George Zimmerman verdict. It has become clear that there is a sustained, coordinated assault against the gains the civil rights movement made half a century ago. This is all the more troubling when we come to grips with the extent to which the movement fell short of its goals in the first place. We like to think the civil rights movement swept everything before it. It's true that it achieved significant parts of its agenda. But it was also defeated.

And the conservative forces that defeated it have not gone away. They retrenched and are now resurgent in many states, in the U.S. House, and in the Supreme Court. They are all the more powerful for having appropriated the movement's legacy and successfully delegitimized discussion of the plain truth: the United States is shot through with racism in its public policy and in its political culture, a fact that is obvious to all those able to imagine a society without racial privilege. But the progress we have made is incorporated into the remaining racist redoubts of law and tradition and thereby becomes a means of resisting more progress.

The racism is particularly pronounced in conservatism, whose most popular spokespersons defend White supremacy unfailingly. It manifests itself in newly created fictions about voter fraud and the resulting wave of vote suppression laws. But as a cursory look at any Democratically controlled big city will reveal, racial oppression is a bipartisan White American tradition.

I didn't mean to rant because this is all a prelude to two pieces of spectacular news this morning. First, Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce a move to get around Federal minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes. You can see the details here, but the point is that the Obama administration is trying to reduce the Federal prison population by sidestepping the minimum sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders. Part of the reason for doing this is the racist impact of these laws. Why not go through congress and actually change the law? First, because the House doesn't pass anything. Second, because the House especially doesn't pass anything that advances racial justice.

The second and perhaps even more important development is that a federal judge this morning gave a giant slap down to the city of New York and Mayor Bloomberg's racist stop-and-frisk policies. It was about as unequivocal a ruling as we could have hoped for. The judge said the city deliberately violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers over the years and ran roughshod over the fourth and fourteenth amendments.

This is a good reminder of how racism in the American political system is very much a bipartisan affair. Liberals and Democrats give themselves way too much credit. Americans have a tendency to deplore symbolic racism while not worrying about racist acts that actually ruin people's lives. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is a disrespectable figure who is widely maligned and ridiculed. It is right that he should be so, but think about this: Mayor Bloomberg has done much more to actually inflict acts of racism on real people in their daily lives than Rush Limbaugh ever has. Yet because he is rich and powerful and does not say outrageous things, Bloomberg is considered respectable.

If you think Bloomberg ought to be a respectable figure, try to imagine an America in which its premier city was led by a Black mayor who systematically and deliberately (and often violently) stopped hundreds of thousands of its White residents each year without any suspicion beyond their color. Would that mayor be respectable? For skeptics thinking this scenario leaves out the important variable of crime rates, it is crucial to know that the judge found that New York City disproportionally targeted racial minorities even after controlling for all other variables.