Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ten thousand recollections ...

This morning while I was walking the dog, my neighbor stopped his bike ride to tell me that he appreciated my letter to the editor that the paper printed a couple of days ago.  Brian was born and raised in South Africa (he is White) and he said that since the shooting in Dallas he has been thinking of a line from Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country.  (He called it required reading in South Africa.)  As he remembers it, the old priest says something to the effect of, "I'm afraid that by the time the Whites start loving, the Blacks will have started hating."  (I looked it up.  The actual quote is, "I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating," and it is spoken by the character the Rev. Theophilus Msimangu.)  I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.

The congregation I serve is named after the third President of the United States -- Thomas Jefferson.  We're located in Charlottesville, in the shadow of Monticello and literally up the road from the University of Virginia.  The presence of "Mr. Jefferson" is still felt in places, so it makes sense that when our congregation was formed it would be named for him.  He did, after all, write the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, was one of the so-called "Founding Fathers" of the nation, and was draftsman of the Declaration of Independence with its stirring words about liberty and freedom.  (He also said some very nice things about Unitarianism, such that for a long time he was claimed as "one of our own." We now somewhat sheepishly acknowledge that he maintained membership in the local Episcopal church throughout his life.)

He also wrote other things, though.  His Notes on the State of Virginia contains some deeply racist thoughts about "the Black race," which he considered fundamentally and irredeemably inferior.  An argument could be -- has been -- made that he was just a person of his time, his thinking conditioned by the thinking of his day just as our is now.  Yet Jefferson's views on the inherent differences he saw between Whites and Blacks was not universally held.  Even in his day he could have thought differently.

The link I make between Cry the Beloved Country and the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson is that he, too, recognized the likelihood that the treatment endured by enslaved people at the hands of their enslavers would most likely lead to an explosion of violent rage.  In explaining his position that freed Blacks should not be allowed to continue to live in Virginia he wrote:
"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies when they leave?  Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
One hundred and forty-one years ago Jefferson predicted that "deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; [and] new provocations ..." could predictably lead to the development an unquenchable anger, hatred, that would no doubt end in violence.  In those one hundred and forty-one years since those "ten thousand recollections" have not dimmed, and the "new provocations" have not ceased.

Do I think that our country's ongoing history of racism will end in "extermination"?  I don't.  I have too much hope and faith in the power of Love for that.  But when folks like me who have been raised to think of ourselves as White wonder what all the anger is about ...  Well ... I think we ask because we just don't want to look at the truth before our eyes.

Pax tecum,


Note:  the image is a composite of a well-known portrait of Jefferson, with that of Isaac Granger Jefferson, one of the enslaved workers at Monticello.

Monday, July 11, 2016

You fix this shit ...

"You fix this shit ..."

This comes from an essay Anthea Butler wrote for Religious Dispatches, in which she responds to her editor's request for a piece about the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the five police offers who were shot and killed in Dallas.  She says, essentially, that she'd one writing for white people who are looking for a person of color to express the outrage, the power of the pain, that we white folks can't (or won't) express ourselves:
"I'm done saving you, good white folks.  You want Black people like me, who like you, to say the prophetic thing, and bail your ass out for not speaking up, for remaining quiet -- while you get your work, vacations, and scholarship done this summer."
I hear this.  At least, to be honest, I'm trying to hear this.  It's hard as a person who was raised to think of myself as white to really  hear this.  Still, I'm trying.  And I think to myself -- what the hell am I supposed to do?  Damn.  how do you change the collective consciousness -- even more the unconsciousness -- of a country?  How do you "turn" the folks who see Donald Trump as, as Ms. Butler put it, "a savior"?

We're told that in Biblical times a prophet could speak out with such conviction that even kings would put on sackcloth and ashes as a demonstration of their heartfelt mourning and desire to repent.  Mohandas Gandhi would stop eating, and the people of India -- Hindu and Muslim alike -- would change their behavior out of concern and respect for the Great Soul.

Is there -- could there be -- such a prophet today?  Who do the American people love so deeply that they would pause in mid-battle for?  I'm not holding my breath for this kind of a solution.

But what can be done?  What can I do?  I know that "show up" matters.  I believe -- deeply -- that it makes a difference, when white folks help white folks to recognize -- to really see -- the racism that is embedded in our culture in which we move unconscious as a fish glides through water.  These things make a difference.  As does working to ensure the enfranchisement of people within historically marginalized groups.  As does writing letters to politicians, and signing petitions, and attending rallies, and getting arrested, and ...

And how do you change the collective consciousness of a country?  Because it's just not enough to change laws.  The ratification of the 14th amendment changed the status of African Americans ... except that it didn't.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that people of color would have the same access to participation in the democratic process as anyone else ... except that it didn't.  (And to further drive home the point, this issue had already supposedly been taken care of back in 1870 with the ratification of the 15th amendment!) 

Yes, we can do anti-bias training for police officers, and it's important work.  Will it really address the implicit bias that is at work in every interaction?  There are so many things that we can do, yet I keep coming back to what seems to me to be a fundamental questions -- how do you change the collective consciousness of a country? 

"You fix this shit ..."  Who are better positioned to change an inherently unjust system than the people who benefit most from that system?  And yet ... how does a fish change the water in the tank?

I truly wish I knew ....

Pax tecum,


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Where is my outrage?

I need to confess something ... something that I'm ashamed of.  Shame is, I know, a word that's out of vogue these days, yet I can't think of anything more appropriate.  "Guilt" is something different, and "embarrassed" doesn't come close.

Yesterday on my Facebook feed I saw a piece that had been posted three months ago on imgur.  It consisted of two things -- a letter purported to be from a first-year law student, written anonymously, complaining about a professor having worn a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus.  "We are here to learn the law," the letter says.  "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."

The second half of the post is claimed to be the professor's response.  (I'm describing it this way because it is, after all, the internet where I came across this and it's so hard to know if things are, indeed, what they appear to be.)  "I am accepting the invitation in your memo, and the opportunity created by its content, to teach you."  The professor goes on to say that he will present his response into two parts:  "Part 1 addresses the substantive and analytical lessons that can be learned from the memo.  Part 2 addresses the lessons about writing that can be learned from the memo."

It is brilliant.  The tone is brilliant.   The content is brilliant.  He articulates answers to the challenges made by so many folks who have been raised to think of themselves as white to the Black Lives Matter movement.  One example:  his first section is a series of naming the unspoken premises behind statements in the student's letter and, then, his critique of them.
Premise:  History doesn't matter.  Therefore sequences of cause and effect can be ignored (or inverted).

Critique:  To assert that the Black Lives Matter movement is about violence against the police is to ignore (and invert) the causal reality that the movement arose as an effect of police violence.  Yes, the movement is about violence, in that it is about the subject of violence, but it is not about violent retaliation against the violence it is about.  It is a tragic fact that rage as a consequence of racial injustice sometimes gets enacted as violence (although not nearly as often as we might expect, given the long-standing causes of that rage).  We can all lament the fact that violence begets violence.  But we can't even do that if we ignore that violence that has done, and is doing, the begetting.
Brilliant, right?  Clear.  Cogent.  I was so impressed that I immediately knew I would be re-posting the link, and referring to professor's arguments often.

So what am I ashamed of?  That I was enjoying it.  That I was reveling in this professor's ability to take apart the student's arguments -- which echo the arguments so many of us hear far too often, even from well-meaning people we know.  He said, more clearly that I ever will, what needs to be said.  And I was loving it.

But where is my outrage?  Where is my anger that these things need to be said at all?  How can I be enjoying something that was born out of such a painful, literally life-and-death reality?  There are real people lying dead on real streets ... and real mourning of real families and friends ... and real fear in the hearts of real people.  This is not a rhetorical exercise.  And the only reason I can sit back and enjoy with clarity (and, let's face it, the cleverness) of this professor's response is because I can sit back, because as a person who has been raised to think of myself as white I am removed from the reality that gives birth to the need for a movement such as Black Lives Matter.

I am the adoptive father of two sons of color.  The brown skin of one will no doubt at some point bring him into direct contact with this reality; the white skin of the other will no doubt shield him.  Yet however close to home this comes to me, what I realized this morning as I reflected on my response to the exchange between this professor and student is that I can sit back.  That I am sitting back more than I was aware of.

Of that, I am ashamed.

Pax tecum,