Crossroads

We’re standing at a crossroads.

Donald Trump has the Republican nomination, and Hillary Clinton (almost) has the Democratic nomination. America is thus faced with a choice. But it goes far beyond Trump vs. Clinton or GOP vs. Dems. This is a choice that may well decide several things. First, it may decide what kind of country the United States truly is. Second, it may decide the fate of the US in general. Third, it may decide the fate of human civilization.

Let’s take that one at a time.

Remember this: the United States was built on racism. It was built on the racism of denying non-white people their land, their liberty, and their labor. Mexican-Americans in Texas and California are in the first category, African-Americans in the second and third, and Native Americans in all three. It was built further on a policy that US needs should and would override the needs of everyone else in the world. Thus democratically elected regimes in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, and Iran were all overthrown with US help or approval, in order to preserve profits, and thus Saddam Hussein was our friend while he fought Iran but our foe when he fought Kuwait, and Osama bin Laden was our friend (or at least our fellow-traveler) when he fought the Soviet Union and our foe afterward.

Racism is in our DNA: it taints the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and it haunts us still in police violence, economic disparity, and political power imbalance, to name only the most obvious. Continue reading

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The Goblin King Could be a Powerful Friend

Yesterday I argued that David Bowie’s legacy must be tarnished, but not erased. If anyone thinks it odd that I am defending the legacy of a musician and actor after he committed a genuine crime, I offer this as evidence for why he can’t be simply dismissed:

“…There Are So Few Black Artists on MTV. Why Is That?”

The deep tragedy of heroes who abuse their power is that they are still heroes.

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

Senseless?

Last week the flags were at half-mast again. I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just leave them down all the time.

With the half-mast flags come the attempts at explanation. But the attempts usually fail: “Senseless,” cry the papers. “Mindless,” declare the TV anchors. Investigators digging for “clues” to the “motives” assure us that we may never truly know why such things happen. Regarding the latest incident, the Seattle Times opined: “The shooter in Oak Creek, Wis., took six lives and wounded three others in a mindless display of firepower fueled by a motive he surely cannot articulate.”

Oh? It seems to me that his message was “Kill the brown people.” Wouldn’t you say he delivered that message well? Continue reading

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

Suspicious

Students at Howard University put out this video in response to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. I strongly encourage you to watch it, because of its powerful refrain: young men on their way to careers in history and law put on “hoodies” — like the one I’m wearing right now — and say, “Do I look suspicious?”

And my gut response, my immediate reaction, no matter what I tried to stop myself was, “Yes. Yes you do.” Because I’m white, they’re black, and I’m racist. Continue reading

People

Here’s a simple exercise:

When you’re out in the world, look around you. See who else is out and about. Then call them what they are: people. Practice naming them as people.

It helps if you start out by ignoring everything you know about them. First to go should be appearance. Nice clothes or shabby? Doesn’t matter. Different skin, different hair, different eyes? Forget them. Young, old? Irrelevant. Ugly or attractive? Not a factor. Male or female? Beside the point.

It’s hard, truly hard. (I said it was a simple exercise, not an easy one. This is why we have to practice it every time we go outside.) Society has trained us to place people in categories, boxes really, which is why it’s so important to practice getting away from that. Because people are not boxes and do not conform to our expectations. When I see a black man, I don’t always think “criminal/dangerous” — but I have thought that, in the past. This despite the fact that such a snap judgment is a) ridiculous and b) goes against everything I’ve been taught by my parents and my faith. Society insinuates its lessons, despite all counter-instruction. I’m getting better. Even as I frequently manage to dissociate “black” from “criminal,” however, my brain still performs the snap categorization that permits such a false and discriminatory judgment in the first place: when I as a white man see a black man, my brain says, “black man.” When I see another white man, though, my brain says, “man.” Until I can change that, I am still racist.

Note that even just “man” puts people in boxes, though. The oldest divide in the human race is between male and female, a split we now know does not have a clear line, but a split regardless. Here I fight not just my socialization but my genes (and hormones!), for my brain has a deep predisposition to focus on young attractive women. Women, however, are far more than objects to look at, and far more than sexual targets to be desired.

Possibly the most important if least-frequent label to remove is “annoyance.” People bother me a lot, talking when I’d prefer silence, intruding on my time when I’m hurrying, interrupting the tasks I’ve set myself. They cut in front of me, they block my way, and (when traffic is involved) they may even hazard my health or life. Seeing those people as people is perhaps the most urgent part, because to see them as people may head off conflict. Harboring anger or resentment for someone permits our minds to denigrate, disrespect, and ultimately dehumanize someone who is, after all, a relative, no matter how distant. Dehumnanization is what permits all forms of violence, mental or emotional or physical. In fact one might say that to see someone as a problem or an annoyance is the first act of violence. Everyone who looks at another with anger has already punched that other in the face.

So I strive to pull back from all the labels I place on the people around me, and only call them “people,” nothing more specific. “Person,” I tell myself. “People. Person. Attractive person.” (I haven’t perfected my technique yet.) “People. Person. People. People. People.”

That’s the first step, pushing through the mass of labels and boxes and preconceptions to the point where you recognize human as human. This first step then enables the next. Once you have trained yourself to set aside all that you see of the people around you, appearance and action, then you need to remind yourself of what you can’t see, but is definitely there: hopes. Fears. Dreams. Love. Anger. Joy. Wisdom. Mistakes. History. A future. In short, all the stuff that makes a soul a soul, all that makes you, you and me, me — it makes them, them.

Look. Call them people. Fold up your boxes and put them away. Remember what you don’t see. Then take the last step, and love these your neighbors as you love yourself.