Friday, December 19, 2014

We Have the Nation's Attention

This, out from Gallup today, is fascinating:

I wrote earlier this month that this is the best moment for "race relations" (a horrible term) in decades. The American public might not describe this moment in such cheerful terms, but it appears that many agree that it is at least consequential.

The brief spike you see in the early 1990s is the Rodney King verdict and subsequent violence in Los Angeles. Other than that brief moment, more Americans currently say "racism/race relations" is the biggest issue facing the country than at any time since the 1960s.

What do these numbers mean? Three quick things:

1) Racial injustice is invisible to Americans unless highly publicized--usually violent--spectacles bring it to light. Schools did not suddenly become more segregated in December, 2014. The justice system did not turn on a dime and start brutalizing Black people. Poverty did not take an unexpected racial turn this December. These are longstanding issues that impoverish and kill and cause misery and heartache. They are invisible under normal circumstances.

2) The movement is accomplishing something meaningful. Don't get me wrong. We need much more tangible accomplishments. But this poll represents a dramatic shift in public consciousness that we've only seen once before since the death of Martin Luther King. This is not sufficient in itself, but it may be a necessary precondition for the more tangible changes that need to occur.

3) This will surely be, like the 1992 eruption you see in the graph, just a brief spike before a return to the normal baseline, unless we continue to organize, protest, disrupt, and bring our concerns before the nation in a way that it cannot ignore. Our activity does not need to stay in the same form. Less important than any specific means of protest is our ability to craft an overall posture of protest such that we are increasingly organized, increasingly specific, increasingly assertive. We must develop a large, sustainable movement capable of escalating over time. The media will come and go, as will the nation's attention. We know this. We must be organized in such numbers that we can bring justice back onto the national agenda repeatedly and reclaim the nation's attention until substantive change is achieved.

Going to a protest this week is nice, but making plans to be on board for the tough years ahead is more important.

Monday, December 15, 2014

White Pastors in the Age of "Black Lives Matter"

I worry that in some quarters the White evangelical response to Ferguson is being reduced to a barest possible minimum. We must listen. We must try to understand how African Americans are feeling. We must bear each others' burdens. We must weep with those who weep. All this is true, but when presented to a White congregation that has fundamentally false and unchristian assumptions about America and about Christianity, it doesn't upset those assumptions at all. In fact, it reinforces them.

When we reduce our job to listening and trying to understand the hurt of others, we're left in a position of superiority. It allows White evangelicals to stand back in our supposed objectivity and maturity and feel good about ourselves for deigning to listen to the overly emotional feelings of others. When we refuse to talk about injustice and White supremacy in our churches, White congregations are left to conclude that even though African Americans should be over these things by now, we should be the bigger people and patiently listen to their concerns.

It allows White congregations to continue in our unconfessed sin, all the while thinking that we are patiently bearing with the sins of others. If pastors can't bring themselves to use words like injustice and oppression in connection to recent events, I think it may be better for them to not bring these issues up at all. (I witnessed one pastor of a White congregation discuss Ferguson on a Sunday morning in a way that reinforced the prejudices of his audience).

That said, I don't envy pastors at this or any time! It's an incredibly difficult job. How do you preach about and expose the most fundamental things ordering your congregants' lives (Whiteness, materialism, individualism, etc) in a way that will draw them to Jesus rather than pushing them out of the church? On the other hand, a church that doesn't expose these things might not be worth being inside in the first place. We need to pray for our church leaders, because identifying the problems in our congregations is much easier than leading us out of them.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Dilemma of Nonviolence

I believe in nonviolence. Don't get me wrong. I believe in it as a strategic matter, and more importantly I believe in it because my Christian faith compels me to. Keep that in mind, because the rest of this post is a contemplation of the limitations of nonviolence.

I've written about this before, but it's been made more abundantly clear in recent months. The dilemma nonviolent protestors face is that it takes probably at least 1000 times as many people to produce the same political response and national sense of urgency that a few people acting violently can achieve. How many people actually engaged in violence in the small riots in Ferguson? Dozens? Maybe hundreds if we're being generous. Yet their actions provoked a widespread response and nationwide attention.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of protestors all over the country marched peacefully, demanding change. We barely made it on the news. We outnumber those engaging in violence by 10,000 to 1, but our impact may be less.

The civil rights movement got around this problem largely because of the stupidity of its opponents in places like Birmingham and Selma. Americans who had little sympathy for Black rights still didn't want to see people being beaten on TV. The nonviolent actions were extremely effective because authorities responded with violence, making them newsworthy. The prospect of disorder on the streets was, I believe, the decisive factor causing the political system to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My apologies to your favorite morality tales. Certainly, the 1968 Fair Housing Act cannot plausibly be explained apart from the violence that ensued after Dr. King's murder.

When the civil rights movement came up against more canny opponents in places like Albany, Georgia, or Chicago, it was much less successful.Without the dramatization of injustice as expressed through the ritual of state-sanctioned violence, it turned out Americans didn't really care about injustice. In the present day, with the notable exception of Ferguson's absurd militarized police provocation even while Brown's body lay on the street, nearly every place in the country these protests occur is more akin to Albany and Chicago than Birmingham and Selma. We're dealing with savvy governments that have an institutional memory of how the civil rights movement was defeated. They are determined not to provide the dramatization we seek.

So what's the way forward? I don't claim to know. The easy theoretical answer is that we simply need to make these protests bigger. If we could mobilize as many Americans for a worthwhile cause as routinely gather at stadiums in cities and college towns all over the country to watch football every weekend, we could shut whole cities down. Once normal commerce and transportation is disrupted in a severe way, the political system will respond quite rapidly. 

I frankly think this is a pipe dream. I just don't believe we have that many people. We have to find other ways to make the political system responsive. We have to work from the grassroots level. Partisan political mobilization will accomplish little. Nearly all the authorities involved in recent events, from Governors Nixon and Cuomo in Missouri and New York, to President Obama, are Democrats. So what? All of them are doing the barest possible minimum to support justice. They know that demands for equal treatment for all Americans and honest discourse about how to get there enrages many of their White constituents.

This White rage over the prospect of losing unjust advantages brings us back to the most fundamental limitation of nonviolence: it plays along with the basic White supremacist double-standards of American history and thought. The average White American today will look at you with a straight face and say that the American Revolution was justified but an armed insurrection by African Americans in the 1960s would not have been. Try to make any moral or historical sense of that position without relying on the logic of White racism. Yet this point is no doubt a new thought to many people. It shows how deeply embedded are our assumptions about the racial boundaries of justifiable violence.

I believe in nonviolence. I think it is strategically wise. I think it is morally necessary. But I'm not blind to its limitations.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In America, White Supremacy Hides in Plain Sight

As we protest the systemic racism of the American criminal justice system, we must be conscious of the ideologies that sustain it. We must attack them at their roots. And we must have a positive vision for the changes that need to occur in the systems that shape life opportunities--education, housing, employment, healthcare--long before encounters with the police and justice system occur. Otherwise, I fear, the American state will never gain the capacity to respond to new circumstances and challenges in justice-producing ways. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have not been, in my view, deliberately racist policies designed to replace the old Jim Crow with the new. They are, rather, a function of the United States' inability to develop policy solutions to pressing challenges without reinscribing White supremacy through those solutions.

As protests continue and, we pray, grow larger, we must come to understand that there is no carceral solution to the consequences of White supremacy. Punitive policies and "law and order" rhetoric will not get us any closer to justice and healing. I fear that many Americans don't realize this.

The sick  brilliance of White supremacy is in its ability to hide in plain sight. We see its shape-shifting work, for example, in the way its most devastating consequences are held up as evidence that it does not exist. You know the drill, the tired litany of complaints: Black illegitimacy, Black family breakdown, Black crime. All of these are framed as functions of Blackness itself, even if presented now in the more respectable  guise of cultural traits rather biological essence. As often as I've heard these complaints, I've yet to find a serious explanation for the certainty with which they're delivered. The basic claim that Black failure produces Black disadvantage is an ideological leap of faith with nothing to support it beyond the a priori assumption that the world works just so. 

This is rooted deep folks. In the decades after the Civil War, White scientists and intellectuals were eagerly speculating about when African Americans would literally die out. Now that they were no longer under the tutelage of slavery, they would obviously revert to a state of savagery. It followed that crime committed by African Americans was not an American social problem; it was just Blackness expressing itself. Meanwhile, sociologists took it for granted that White crime was not White as such, and could readily be alleviated by education and social programs. When we talk about "black on black" crime without any sense of irony or absurdity, we place ourselves in this intellectual tradition.

In the United States of White supremacy, White problems are social, Black problems are racial. It is considered unnecessary to explain or quantify how, precisely, a group that has been systematically plundered and oppressed for hundreds of years could possibly be expected to have the same amount of wealth and educational attainment as the plunderers. As this question is silenced, the fervent faith that there is somehow something wrong with Black people that is not wrong with America rushes in to fill the void.

The family breakdown thesis, in particular, is important for White Americans because it explains Black disadvantage without reference to the larger society, and does so in a way that upholds conservative religious value about the importance of the family. Americans are not wrong to stress the importance of strong families; they are wrong, however, in the application they think it has to this discussion. The family breakdown thesis locates disadvantage and cause alike within the Black community. For it to have any explanatory power at all, then, this view necessarily contrasts the contemporary Black family with a prior era in which the Black family was strong and stable, illegitimacy rates were low, and the norms of the White middle class prevailed. There was no such period. 

The family breakdown thesis gazes at the problems racism has produced, and flippantly turns consequence into cause. The Black family in the United States has always been under tremendous pressure. Emancipation was a boon, and many African Americans desperately searched around the country for their spouses and children that had been separated by enslavers.  But sharecropping in the shadow of Jim Crow, lynching, and convict leasing was a precarious existence for any family. In the twentieth century, as mechanization of agriculture proceeded, the traditional occupation of the vast majority of African Americans was rendered obsolete. They responded as human people do: they moved en masse, eagerly looking for work. For a brief moment they found it in the nation’s burgeoning industrial cities. Yet even as mechanization foreclosed traditional Black agricultural occupations, by the 1960s and 1970s globalization and deindustrialization began to cause a sustained hemorrhaging of industrial jobs, beginning with those at the bottom of the ladder: African Americans.

Dr. King recognized how devastating these changing economic conditions were. In "A Testament of Hope," published posthumously, he wrote:
Before 1964, things were getting better economically for the Negro; but after that year, things began to take a turn for the worse. In particular, automation began to cut into our jobs very badly, and this snuffed out the few sparks of hope the black people had begun to nurture.
The people who stress the importance of strong families should not need much convincing that being shut out of gainful employment makes it hard to sustain stable families.

Whites responded to the influx of Black migrants looking for work and housing with their own mass migration—out of city centers to new, federally subsidized White suburbs. Business and government investment followed the movement of the White population, leaving little to no work for African Americans. Concurrently, federal housing and education programs that excluded African Americans began to build the modern White middle class. Buffeted by discrimination in housing and employment, unequal education, globalization and deindustrialization, discriminatory government programs and poorly designed federal assistance programs, many Black families splintered. Rather than addressing the problem, federal and state governments launched massive punitive operations, building a mass incarceration state that ripped men from their families for petty offenses and exacerbated the persecution of the Black family. By the end of the twentieth century, the Black family had passed through what was, in some ways, the most sustained and multi-pronged assault on it since enslavers had broken up a third of their families by sale the century before. 

This is an extraordinarily brief overview of the story that complainers from afar want to reduce to a tale of Black irresponsibility, with a little "big government welfare" thrown in for good measure.  As we continue to protest, we must fight these simplistic morality tales. We must fight the pervasive assumption that the message Americans of all backgrounds convey to their children in the quiet of their homes--work hard, take responsibility--is somehow an answer to the problem of white supremacy. The moral instruction we instill in our children is no substitute for reform of systems, laws, and institutions.

White supremacy is continually rendered invisible as we glance at the devastation it creates and then resolutely turn away. We change the subject from causes and solutions to scapegoating. American problems become racial problems. Social sins become individual sins. In a lot of ways, Americans hate our own history. We really do. We can't stand it. If we're ever going to become a country that works for all of us, we must gain the courage to look at our history, and this time, not turn away.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This is the Best Moment for American Race Relations in Decades

Racial controversy has been in the news a lot in the last couple weeks. This has produced a heightened sense of racial tension, and protestors around the country have been out on the streets daily. My sense is that most White Americans view all of this as unfortunate. There is a feeling that “race relations” have deteriorated. 

I want to dispel that idea. If you stand for justice, this has been, by far, the best moment for American “race relations” in decades. It is hard to overstate how pervasive the assumption is that outward calm should be the goal of our efforts. The assumption is carried in the language we use. “Race relations” is a term that reduces everything to the question of how we appear to be getting along. It completely elides whether there is a presence or absence of justice. And folks, what American history unequivocally shows is that you don’t get racial justice without going through times when White Americans are despairing over the sad state of “race relations.” It’s time to recognize how empty that term is. Let’s stop using it.

During the civil rights movement, an astonishingly consistent pattern emerged. As protests began in a city or region, Whites in that area expressed confusion and irritation. Over and over again, they declared that “race relations” were good in their town before the protests began. They were genuinely, sincerely baffled that African Americans were protesting when there was nothing to protest over. They repeatedly lamented that the civil rights activists had caused deterioration in “race relations” and sought to get the protests over with as quickly as possible so that peace could return.

Though Whites don’t see it this way, the message they convey when they focus on “relations” instead of “justice” is that racial injustice doesn’t matter as long as others are bearing the brunt of it, and doing so in silence. If our first response to recent events is to hope that things calm down soon, we’re acting as defenders of injustice even though we don’t mean to be doing so. If protests stop, no legislation is likely to be passed. If protests stop, White Christians can stop learning about these issues. If protests stop, we can go back to saying, “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. 

Want a concrete example of the “Let’s all calm down and stop talking about race” discourse? There is no better specimen than the repeated quoting of Martin Luther King that I’ve heard from many Whites in recent weeks. Here’s the funny thing about it: you already know which line they quoted. I don’t even have to tell you. And this line is quoted as a trump card. It’s a strange thing. I’ve never gotten the sense from the people quoting it that they have any qualms about not knowing any of Dr. King’s thousands of other speeches and sermons. The thing that is so discouraging about it is that they don't seem to realize there is more to know. They quote the line with utter abandon. It would be a different sort of problem if people were just cynical and saying, “As a strategic matter to try to bolster my argument and moral authority, I’m going to quote King.” But I don’t think that’s what they’re doing. I think they sincerely quote him and are unaware that he disagreed with their point of view. 

What should our conclusion be? These protests do not increase racial divisions. They expose them. Yet many White Americans are more offended by the act of exposure than by the injustice. We lack self-awareness and a sense of our place in history. Think about this: you can get all but the most committed racists to reluctantly admit that every single prior generation of White people was wrong on racial justice. Every generation. Yet people will continue to take the White perspective in this generation, with an outlandish confidence that, hey, I guess, the 20th time’s the charm. It’s theoretically possible they’re correct. But it takes a special brand of arrogance to think it is likely.