Two Hashtags

Nez Perce National Historic Park - Spaulding, Idaho

 Behind every political deal in this country, the first casualties are always the ordinary people, who are barely treated as human.

Ai Weiwei

Chinese artist and activist

The modern world is a world of large, complex institutions. These institutions replaced the social world of families and communities. Instead of relationships being at the heart of our national society, we have politics.

The way politics is conducted in the modern world is to simplify the issues so that there is no longer any thing to think about, it is just about the emotion of the subject. Combine emotions with the power of images you have a toxic mix that alienates people from the realities of the world at large by distracting them with politics.

This is true across the ideological spectrum. This isn't a left / right thing. It is how institutions manage their "relationship" to people. As a result, we live in a world of greater conflict, division and confusion than is necessary.

This is particularly true with the question of race. For me, two hashtag phrases frame this place of race in America.

One is ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬.

The other ‪#‎WhitePrivilege‬.

I find these two phrases saying things that may be missed, or, that their most passionate promoters may or may not see. Yet, we need as a society and as individuals to talk about the deeper meanings of these phrases.

Those who speak about #WhitePrivilege are speaking about the privilege that White people have had in the USA since the day Columbus stepped on shore. All that they assert maybe true. Some of it is ugly, some of it is not. The question that confronts those of us who are White is "What should we do about it?".

So far, since this idea began to be promoted, I have heard of no one who has stepped down from their position of privilege so that someone who has been disadvantaged by that privilege may find opportunity which presently is not given to them.

This idea is a political message. All contemporary political messages are inherently dialectic, saying two things.

The #WhitePrivilege message has two messages.

To White people it is a reminder that they should feel guilty for their privilege. But their guilt does not require any action. By simply holding a belief in #WhitePrivilege our guilt as White people is relieved.

The more insidious message here is the one reminding African-Americans that not only are they are still victims of racism, but they are depended upon the White establishment for its resolution. In effect, in my opinion, #WhitePrivilege is a code word for #WhitePaternalism. Is that not the political system that African-Americans and other minorities have found themselves in?

I find #WhitePrivilege a sophisticated version of the liberal White racism that I heard in my seminary urban ministry course 35 years ago. At that time, an African-American scholar spoke to us about the racism of Whites. I found his words hollow, and prejudicial, unwittingly making the claim that Blacks were in effect helpless in the face of #WhitePrivilege. And yet, here he stood speaking to us as an authority, looking very much like a representation of White privilege, except with dark skin. I knew then, that this was not directly about race, or rather about our relationships with one another as the races, but about the politics of race. Politics in this instance is a code word for power. This is what #WhitePrivilege has always been about.

I am suggesting by this post that #WhitePrivilege is really a reminder to the African-American community that their benefits as citizens have always come as a result of the ‪#‎WhitePaternalism‬ of those who lead the nation. I don't think that those who speak of #WhitePrivilege realize that they are saying this. I think in their earnestness to resolve racial conflict, they want to take responsibility. But continuation of the paternalism that has been at the heart of the American political system towards all minorities is not really a suitable answer here in the second decade of the 21st century.

The other phrase ‪#‎BlackLiveMatters‬ rose up as a way to focus public attention on the rate of violence brought against Black males by law enforcement officers. It is a movement not unlike the conservative Tea Party movement seeking to draw attention to issues within their communities about how the government, in this case, law enforcement agencies, treat them.

Whatever the merits of their cause, the politics of the nation, and not realities of the local communities, is where these issues are being addressed.

There is a deeper message, however, in this phrase that I believe is worth reflecting upon.

#BlackLivesMatter is, also, a statement of the recognition that African-Americans are people, not merely victims, but people worthy of dignity, respect and honor. The power of language can get at this point this way.

If I was to call Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr a Black man, everyone would acknowledge this to be true and quite obvious.

However, if I was to say that Dr. King is a man who is Black or an African-American, then I would be saying something different. I would be first saying that he is a man. He is a man who was a son, a husband, a father, a pastor, a national Civil Rights leader, a Nobel Prize awardee and ultimately, a martyr, who is Black or African-American.

When we say #BlackLivesMatter, we are speaking about people who are more than the color of their skin. They are people like you and me. People who live and work to fulfill their dreams, care for their families, and participate as full citizens of their country. Much about us may be different, but those differences should not divide us, but rather enrich our lives as citizens of the same nation.

Politicians may or may not get this because to do so complicates the messages that they are trying to communicate to their political base. Politicians don't want us to think. They want us to believe in them. Belief often requires suspension of our critical thinking faculties. They want to touch our emotions, so that we are not thinking too much on election day.

When I think of #BlackLivesMatter, I think of Dr. King and Rosa Parks. I think of W.E.B. Dubois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright, of Roberto Clemente, of Tar Heel basketball star Charlie Scott, and, of my high school football coach, Baxter Holman. I think of friends and colleagues over the years through whom I've become a better man for knowing them. I think of the beauty of Yolanda Adams as she sang on The Tonight Show. #BlackLivesMatter because they are rich in contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of America.

When I think of #WhitePrivilege, I think of the Clinton's, the Bush's, the Trump's, and all those White men and women who have served in Congress, and yet have not figured out that the vast majority of problems this country faces, like race, are products of their own failed leadership. Why is it that fifty years after the voting rights act and the war on poverty was instituted that we are still dealing with those issues. I'm convinced that is because it is politically expedient to do so.

Institutional nature of modern society is essentially political in nature. Politics in this sense is both a product of image, of appearance, and, of transactions and exchanges of privilege. I have something you want, and, I will exchange it for your vote or support at the next election or team meeting. The more transactional our society has become, the more toxic its political culture.

What's the solution?

It begins with our own perception of the world. It is important to understand that the institutional nature of our society dictates how we view other people. When people have the opportunity to meet and get to know one another, the similarities of our lives take on a greater presence than our differences. Politics emphasizes our differences because that sequesters communities into voting factions.

However, when we perceive our world as foremost and fundamentally, a series of interactions with people, then race takes on a different perspective.

Let me suggest as you walk down the street today, look each person you pass in the eye, smile and say "Good day.", "How ya doin'?" or nod your head. Many will return the gesture, others won't.

Learn to strike up a conversation. If you are respectfully curious, you'll find a way to begin a conversation.

Listen. Appreciate. Don't argue.

Learn to see who this person is from their perspective.

Politics tells us that we must defend our position. Why? Because our self-identity is so fragile that must have a political identity to feel secure. This is another reason why politics has become so toxic in America.

Forty years ago, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of life is bound up in relationships. If we were to place our emphasis on building relationships across political, cultural and racial lines, then we'd find the capacity to restore peace and prosperity to our communities.

In the end, #BlackLivesMatter because their lives are like our lives and the lives of people everywhere. They matter and are worthy of respect and honor.

And privilege, whether White or otherwise, matters only when responsibility is taken to use that privilege to build relationships and community that serve each person.

The Price of Unity

Yesterday, Barrack Obama made an appeal to the American people for unity. It was a great speech in what he wanted the American people to believe about him. He wants us to believe that he is a unifier. I hope he is, but his speech and his actions regarding his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright suggests that he does not fully understand what unity requires.

Last night I began to write something on this speech, then realized I was too tired to do it justice. So, I'm up this morning, thinking a bit more clearly about what I like and what troubles me about Barrack Obama. And how the man is becoming a symbol of the racial divide that divides the country in more ways that simply white and black.

What I liked.
The appeal to unity. His characterization of division as, in my words, petty, is accurate.  I blame the political parties and their media and blogging co-conspirators, and the gullible-nature of the American public for this disunity. We are at a disreputable low in American discourse, and we are all to blame. Based on his speech, I believe Barrack Obama understands this. 

Also, for me race has been an issue since I was a child. We had a race riot in my home town in the sixties. I remember the barricades that did not allow us white families to go downtown where we would normally go. For me growing up in the South, race was a much bigger deal than the Vietnam War.  In many ways, it defined who I was. I attended all white public schools throughout my primary and secondary education. Then when I went to UNC-Chapel Hill in the early seventies, I saw black radicalism for the first time. To me, I could understand the radical white and radical black sides of this issue.  What I could not understand was the racism that existed in the middle. So, I took two classes in the literature of African-American authors taught by a black man who helped me better understand.  I'll never forget watching Gone With The Wind for the first time with him sitting in the seat in front of me. Though I love the South and my Southern heritage, I also knew that the race question was something that defined me in ways that white supremacists could not.

Over the years, I've come to realize that the race question is just like any other dominant cultural expression. It is resistant to change. It is based on attitudes and assumptions about the way things are, when many of those "things" have changed. My sense has been for a long time that the great middle of the country changed in its attitudes towards race. This change happened more in the Republican Party than the Democrat Party. I say this as a former Democrat, now independent. Current President Bush made color blind choices when he chose Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice to be his secretaries of defense and state. There was no debate about whether a black man or woman could do the job. Their race was noticed, but there was none of this divisive racial stereotyping like we have seen in the Democrat presidential primary race this year.  As it should be, the focus was on their qualifications for the job.

I liked Barrack Obama's speech because more than anything he was calling his party to unity. I believe the rest of the nation has changed.  I don't believe the Democrat Party has changed on race. It still wants to play the sixties race card, just as it still likes to play the Vietnam War distrust of government card. It is  the politics of expediency, not the politics of the future. I'm not a Democrat because I believe they represent the politics of the past, not the future.  I'm not a Republican because I don't think they have any answers for the world we are in. They are stuck in some void that has failed to developed new leadership that understands the future. In this sense, they represent the governance of the past. 

What troubles me.
In his speech yesterday, Barrack Obama spoke about his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who by the most generous assessment is a racist and an anti-American. He is representative of the radical black movement of the sixties, except without the violence thrown in.  Any one who paid attention to the rhetoric of black nationalists back then, understands what Rev. Wright is saying. It is incendiary and divisive. There is no racial solution embedded in this ideology. There is no ground for unity or progress.

What troubles me is that Obama didn't challenge this perception of Wright. From what we know, the assumption is that he did not. He sat as a parishioner in Wright's church for twenty years taking in this divisive ideology, and let it pass. Barrack Obama is not your average parishioner. He is a Harvard educated, politically ambitious parishioner.  He used his relationship to Rev. Wright and his church to find a foothold in the black community of South Chicago to build support for his political career. I have no problem with this at all. He was smart to do this.  To build political support, you must go where the people are, and join them in their hopes and dreams, but not in their fear, bitterness and  hatred.

What troubles me is his judgment. It troubles me because he has disavowed Wright's race perspective so late. He did it when he had to, when it was expedient to do so. And then when he did, he basically said the rhetoric didn't matter, because the friendship trumped the ideas.  What standard would Obama apply to this relationship that would require his severing of the friendship in order to preserve is own integrity?  I wonder about that.

It also troubled me that Barrack Obama put Rev. Wright's political speech on the same level as his grandmother's personal racial prejudices. They are not the same. One is intended to publicly influence people, the other is private and personal. The comparison is inappropriate and demeaning to his grandmother. I understand his point, but it raises questions in my mind about his judgment. After all, in his position as president, he'll not only be choosing a cabinet, but judges for the nation's courts, including the Supreme Court.  What standard of character and opinion will he apply to making these judgments?  I'm not sure I have a clue.

The Unity Issue.
Unity is not everyone agreeing. That is uniformity. Unity is built on principle and shared values. There is an agreement that we can disagree as long as we have the same goal in mind. I do not think this ground of unity has been established by Obama. All he has done is assert that the American people want hope and unity.  He has not shown me that he understands how that is to be achieved.

When he shows that ideas don't matter that much, that ideas are not some measure of the character of a person, then it raises questions about his fitness to be president. Barrack Obama is a believer in people. With that comes a certain naiveté that is an expensive luxury for a president to have. I want a president who is willing to look every person in the eye asking, "What's in it for him or her?"

The price of unity is to decide that certain ideas matter, and that certain ideas don't and those ideas are such that they exclude those holding them from a relationship of unity. Unity isn't built on good feelings and benevolent intentions. Unity is built on vision, shared values and a clear sense of what is right and wrong. The price is that unity is never absolute, and there will always be division, and that unity is ultimately a moving target that is constantly addressed.  This I'm not sure Barrack Obama nor the American people understand.

Barrack Obama appeals to the best of us, and in that he is worthy of consideration. However, we need to see that he is a man of sound judgment who is capable of making the decisions that comes with the presidency. I'm not convinced that he is ready for this. Time will tell, and at that time I'll make my own decision about him.

Politics over People; Character over Hate

I've not yet read Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' new memoir - My Grandfather's Son.  Unlike most Washington bios, this is one I want to read. Thomas' story fascinates me because it illuminates a side of the race question in America that doesn't get sufficient treatment.

As a Southern born white man, the race question has always been a serious issue for me. Throughout my life, my relationships with African-Americans have been some of my most treasured ones. The quality of the people I've known; their genuineness, love and humility; and their love for family and church have made the issue of race a disturbing one to me.

The issue was significant enough for me to take two courses in African-American literature from Professor Blyden Jackson at UNC-Chapel Hill. A great man of wisdom, compassion and dignity who helped us Southern middle-class white folk come to an understanding of race that was not represented in the national news of our day. If you've never read any African-American literature, let me suggest you begin with Richard Wright's Black Boy and Native Son, and then Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. It's a start.  Then Tim Tyson's novel about race in small town North Carolina in the 1960's- Blood Done Signed My Name.

Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings were a real surprise to me. As it was to many people.  Here a white elite political culture used a black woman to take down a black man who didn't accept the reigning political consensus on race.  It was apparent to me that race was no longer an issue of whether whites and blacks could get along.  A new sophistication in racism emerged on the national scene.

In the South, race was not first a political issue, but a socio-economic one.  Africans were brought here as chattle, taken from their home continent, and sold into slavery.  Embedded in that idea are a couple of ideas that persist to this day. One is that the black race is not as "good" as the white race. Not as capable, not as bright, don't have the initiative and therefore, are a weaker race than whites.  It is an idea that persists, and intensifies many of the social problems of the African-American community.  Consequently, blacks need white people's help to rise out of poverty and degradation. They are a race dependent upon the goodness of whites to make it. Today, this primarily means a dependency upon the government's help.  Both ideas are racist to the core and shared by rednecks and political liberals, for various reasons and a range of sophistication.

Judge Thomas' confirmation hearings convinced me that liberals are not different than conservatives on race, just more subtle and deceptive. It served them well for a long time, because, in fairness, some liberals were the champions of equality for black people. It is not a mistake that many of these champions were white Southerners who, like myself, saw racism as inherently evil, and indefensible and illogical. It is one thing to hate someone because that have done something personally to you. It is another thing to hate the whole race because they appear to be a threat to some notion of what is right and wrong.

Liberals attack on Justice Thomas was the final straw in whatever social liberalism had been nurtured in my life to that point in time. Whatever allegiance to the Democrat Party that I had was gone. Was my idealism gone? No. I just came to realize that politicians are oriented toward power instead of people.  I saw these political liberals as just as racist as my fellow Southern rednecks, yet in a worse way.  Rednecks hate blacks because their life conditions are so similar. And about the worse thing they can do is hurt you or kill you.  Liberal racism is the same condescension of whites toward blacks. However, when you mix politics with it, you end up with a potion whose destructive potential is tremendous. In essence,  liberals attacked Thomas because he left the liberal plantation of race.  At that point, I realized that blacks were still not free.  Their overseer had shifted to the Democrat Party.  To be truly black meant that they had to uphold some ideology formed in collusion between liberal political elites and a cadre of radicalized leaders from the African-American community.  And when Bill Clinton was proclaimed the "first Black President" I knew that politics had trumped the issue of race in America.  It meant that politicians and the leaders of the race industry were the only legitimate spokespersons for black people. This is In fact why Justice Thomas, who spoke for himself, was a problem.

Add to it that he would be the lone African-American on the Supreme Court, and the racism of this political class of liberals could not be contained.  Read the blogs on Justice Thomas this week, and you'll find that same racism that existed when the hearings were held, being expressed toward him today. 

For many of us who grew up in the South, our perspective on race is different than those who grew up elsewhere. The band Drive-By-Truckers  for my son's generation, has shown a particularly nuanced and compelling picture of race in the South. If you don't know DBT, they are a Southern rock band whose style is raw and in-your-face.  Their CD Southern Rock Opera is about the South, and is a tribute to the band Lynyrd Skynyrd.  One of the songs is a monologue about Southern culture. It is titled Three Alabama Icons. It is a story about Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Coach Bear Bryant, University of Alabama football coach, and George Wallace, governor, judge and Presidential candidate.

The Wallace portion is the most insightful, and shows what DBT calls "the duality of the southern thing."  Here are the lyrics. Wallace was, for all practical purposes, the governor of Alabama from 1962 until 1986.  Once when a law prevented him from succeeding himself, he ran his wife Lurleen in his place and she won by a landslide.  He's most famous as the belligerent racist voice of the segregationist south, standing in the doorways of schools and waging a war against the federal government that he decried as hypocritical.  Now Wallace started out as a lawyer and a judge with a very progressive and humanitarian track record for a man of his time, but he lost his first bid for governor in 1958 by hedging on the race issue against a man who spoke out against integration.  Wallace ran again in '62 as a staunch segregationist and won big and for the next decade he spoke out loudly.  He accused Kennedy and King of being  communist and he was constantly on national news representing "the good people" of Alabama. 

...and ya know race was only an issue on TV in the house that I grew up in.  Wallace was viewed as a man from another time and place, but when i first ventured out of the south I was shocked at how strongly Wallace was associated with Alabama and its people. 
Racism is a worldwide problem, and it's been like that since the beginning of recorded history and it ain't just white and black, but thanks to George Wallace, it's always a little more convenient to play it with a southern accent. 

Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to show another side of the south, one that certainly exists, but few saw beyond the rebel flag and this applies not only to their critics and detractors but also their fans and followers.  So for a while, when Neil Young would come to town, he'd get death threats in Alabama.  Ironically, in 1971, after a particularly racially charged campaign, Wallace began backpeddling and he opened up Alabama politics to minorities at a rate faster than most northern states or the federal government.   Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past and in 1982 he won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote,
such is the duality of the southern thing. 

...and George Wallace died back in '98 and he's in hell now, not because he's a racist.  His track record as a judge and his late life quest for redemption make a good argument for his being, at worst, no worse than most white men of his generation, North or South.  Because of his blind ambition and his hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the suffering of black America and he became a pawn in the fight against Civil Rights cause. 

...fortunately for him, the devil is also a southerner. So this song is going to take place in hell, told from the devil's point of view.  And he does what any good southerner would do when company's coming. He brewed up some good sweet tea.  And he woops up some southern hospitality for the arrival of the new guest.

DBT is an acquired taste. This is not your daddy's pop rock stadium band. These fellows take their Southern roots seriously.  They address it openly, honestly and with an edge that can be disturbing in polite society.  It is refreshingly truthful.

Race in America is far more complicated that the politicians and their media minions want us to believe. It is subtle, nuanced, mixed with goodness and hate. It is part of what makes America one of the great places in the world. The issue isn't settled. And it won't be settled by elites who play the game for the preservation of a past that no longer exists and the power that comes with it.   

Over the past generation, a generation of black men have been lost to an education system that didn't know how to care for them, and an entertainment industry that saw a population that they could manipulate. It is all cut out of the same piece of cloth.

Clarence Thomas' story shows "the duality of the racial thing."  Here's a black man who achieves prominence on his own, and instead of people championing his story as an example for other black men, he is instead "put in his place" because he essentially acted as one of "those uppity blacks" that were frequently denigrated in my town forty years ago.

I celebrate Justice Thomas' story. Not because it is a primarily about an African-American man's success story.  Rather, it is a classic American one. What Clarence Thomas has achieved provides inspiration for any child, regardless of race or national origin, to believe that they can make a difference far beyond whatever humble circumstance of their birth. It is born in character and survives the same way.

I look forward to reading his book.  I hope you will too, and share his story with some child who needs to know that they can go farther in life than what all the naysayers tell them.