Category Archives: Society

Reflections on MLK’s Birthday

This week #BlackLivesMatter protesters were charged with various crimes and restitution for the Christmas protests at the Mall of America. At the same time I’m reading the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and hoping to actually attend MLK Day events instead of just enjoy another day off. I’m troubled by the continual question of whether or not black lives actually matter—questionable police killings, terror in Paris that trumps massacre in Nigeria, and condemnations for protests that inconvenience people.

I’m frustrated by all of it. So I rant…

In this day and time when we celebrate the work and life of Martin Luther King Jr., why is it that we sanitize the man?

We want to make him a hero of racial harmony, the winner in the battle for freedom and equal rights.

We forget his challenge to the churches of the time, who stood by in silence while King wrote to them from his jail cell on scraps of paper. We forget that King not only wanted racial equality, but progress. Jobs, housing, education—King wanted fairness and equality in all of these areas of life. He was anti-war and even argued for a nationalized healthcare system.

We forget all those unrealized dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. Instead we focus on free at last. We look around and decide that segregation is gone so we must have made it to the mountaintop.

Such a vision of King allows us to declare his work done.

Here in the North we like to congratulate ourselves that we weren’t the center of marches and protests, we didn’t unleash dogs and fire hoses.

Yet here in the North, in Minnesota where we pride ourselves on being nice, it’s really just a facade. While our education system is the pride of the nation, it fails Minnesotans of color. Our achievement gap is among the worst in the nation. Blacks make up only 5% of Minnesota, yet they fill 37% of our prisons—the black to white disparity in our prisons is among the worst in the nation (Council on Black Minnesotans Disparity Analysis, PDF). Across the country the net worth of blacks is one-thirteenth the net worth of whites.

50 years after free at last why do these basic inequalities still exist?

If we truly believe that all people are equal, if that’s the foundation of our society, the basis of our freedom, the ethos of America itself—then why do such disparities exist?

It is time to open our eyes to the casual, hidden racism in our own hearts. It’s time to stop thinking that we are post-racial and realize the million tiny ways that our society is still segregated, still racist, still separate and still definitely not equal.

Disagree? Then why are black people 20 times more likely to be stopped by police? And it’s not justified, because “whites stopped during traffic searches were found to carry contraband at higher rates than blacks and other minorities, [yet] resulting arrests and prosecution rate were ten times higher for blacks than for whites,” (Disparity Analysis).

There’s Minnesota Nice at work.

We think the black man needs to pull himself up by his bootstraps, but we forget, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, that the black man is actually barefoot.

We bristle at the idea that a black person should get help that we never received. I worked hard to get to where I am today. Yes you did. But so did your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, many of whom benefited by ousting Native Americans, by enjoying the benefits of free slave labor or milking the lives of sharecroppers. None of that is personally your fault or mine (and we bristle at the idea), but we have privilege lifting us up, while the black community has centuries of weight holding them down even today.

This cartoon so simply illustrates the differences:

1150x647

It’s time we open our eyes to the realities. Today it’s not blatant Jim Crow laws, but hidden biases in our justice system that seek anything but justice. A white teenager caught with drugs made a simple mistake, boys will be boys and they’re given a slap on the wrist. Black teen drug offenders are thugs and gangbangers. They get criminal records.

We villainize  criminals today, forgetting that Jesus Christ was a criminal, falsely accused and executed by the state. While hanging on the cross with thieves and robbers on either side, he turned and forgave the criminal.

When a black man is shot and killed by the police, we pull up every wrong the black man has ever done. We pull up his criminal record, the bad things he said, the questionable photos on social media. The forgiveness that is supposed to be at the very heart of our Christian faith goes out the window as we justify why this man deserved to be killed. He said bad things, once upon a time, so it’s OK for the police to shoot him. He robbed a store, so the death penalty is OK. Innocent until shot by police and proven guilty by a jury of sensational media. But he broke the law, so he had it coming.

It doesn’t matter if that black man was 12 years old.

It doesn’t matter if that black man was innocent.

Forgiveness does not apply because that black man was a bad man.

Not only was Jesus Christ a criminal, but so was Martin Luther King Jr. He sat in jail more than 30 times. The FBI had him under surveillance. They were more worried about this black man protesting and marching across the south than they were the KKK who were bombing and murdering across the south.

This is where we are today. We have sanitized—dare I say whitewashed—the civil rights movement to make it safe and comfortable and convince ourselves that we arrived at the mountaintop a long time ago. That way we don’t have to look around at the injustices piling up at our feet. We can ignore them and keep on walking.

We can decry the protesters who block freeways and clog shopping malls, dismissing them and labeling them as law breakers and criminals, ignoring that these same tactics were used 50 years ago in the civil rights movement. We herald these actions in history but condemn them in the present.

freewaysitin1964

We do not have equality today. We do not have justice today. We have not made it to the mountaintop.

There is still work to be done.

As we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the many other civil rights pioneers, let us not give in to the thinking that the work is done. Let’s find today’s civil rights pioneers, today’s strugglers and join with them.

What Now?

If, like me, you’re wondering what to do and want to be involved and know how you can help, then join me in listening.

Let’s read the powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start.

But let’s not stop with powerful words written more than 50 years ago (as amazing as they are). Let’s listen to today’s leaders like Nekima Levy-Pounds, a local civil rights lawyer and law professor at St. Thomas. She’s one of 10 charged with organizing the #BlackLivesMatter protests at the Mall of America and charged with $25,000 in lost income and police overtime, in addition to other fines.

Let’s read books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Let’s attend MLK Day events and celebrate more than a sanitized legacy.

Let’s begin to understand how the promise of American has been limited to a select few, and that struggle and protest are the only way that promise has been opened to all. Keeping that promise is never easy or automatic. For justice to roll down, the people must rise up. Let’s do the work to ensure that all people truly are created equal and have the same advantages and opportunities.

Let’s make America the land of freedom and equality we claim it is.

Gender Diversity in Books

Last week I looked at diversity in my reading  going back to 2001. I simply looked at racial diversity, assuming gender diversity wasn’t a big deal anymore.

Out of curiosity, I went back and charted gender diversity.

Turns out I’ve been lacking gender diversity as well:

Gender diversity among the books I read.

  • This is a little more straight-forward to chart than racial diversity. For books with multiple authors, I counted them if any of the contributors were women.
  • 2014 is the only year I’ve read more women than men (54%). The only other years that come close are 2008 with 45% (that happens to be the year I re-read the entire Harry Potter series, accounting for 7 of the 9 books authored by a woman) and 2013 with 42%.
  • Most years I’m sitting between a quarter and a third of my books written by female authors.
  • For a few years I only read two or three female authors. In my lame defense, I didn’t read many books that year. But the ratio was still around 10% or less. Ouch.
  • I’ve read a lot more YA and middle grade fiction recently, and I wonder if that has accounted for my recent spike in women authors. There tend to be a lot more women authors in YA and middle grade.

Clearly, more proof that diversity doesn’t happen by accident.

Why We Must Pursue Diverse Books

We Need Diverse BooksI believe diversity matters. We’re better when we hear from a diverse range of voices. But if we’re not intentional about embracing diversity, it doesn’t happen.

I got my We Need Diverse Books swag in the mail today, my reward for supporting their highly successful Indiegogo project.

I read a lot of books last year (203, not that I’m bragging), and I was curious how diverse my selections were. I made an effort to read more diverse books in 2014 (in part thanks to We Need Diverse Books), but I was also curious about previous years as well.

So here’s a chart of the diversity of my reading going back to 2001:

My total books vs. diverse books Continue reading Why We Must Pursue Diverse Books

Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter Protests

It’s been a busy week. Two weeks ago my family joined the Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Minneapolis. Last Saturday they protested at Mall of America (we did not attend) and police turned out in riot gear and shut down the mall for a peaceful protest.

On the same day two New York police officers were shot and killed by a mentally unstable man who had killed his girlfriend earlier in the day, killed himself after the incident, and has spouted revenge rhetoric, implying his actions were in response to recent police killings of black people.

Some of the response to that tragedy has blamed the protestors. Not just mild finger pointing, but incendiary language about “blood on your hands.” (Here’s perhaps the best response I’ve seen.)

So here I sit on Christmas Eve writing about it. The whole situation is pretty intense (especially as yet another case is breaking news).

Continue reading Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter Protests

Black Lives Matter Rally in Minneapolis

Today my family went to the Million Artist Movement rally/protest in downtown Minneapolis. It’s part of #BlackLivesMatter response to the continuing racial injustice in cases like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others.

It’s interesting. I’ve never really protested before. I’ve been to a few peace protests, mostly in response to 9/11 and the continuing war in Iraq, but I was more there as a journalist/observer than a participant.

Today I was here first and foremost as a dad. Secondly as a protestor myself.

It’s been kind of a bizarre week talking about these cases with our kids.

How do you explain all of this to your kids?

How do you explain what a “die in” is?

How do you explain to your brown-skinned son that police are killing brown-skinned people?

How do you explain that police are still heroes? That while this injustice happens and it’s bad and we want to stop it, not all police officers are bad?

None of it is easy, I can tell you that.

When we told Milo that Michael Brown and Eric Garner were black, he broke down in tears.

His reaction broke my heart. But it also seems like the only appropriate way to respond.

The civil rights movement may have been 50 years ago and we did elect a black president, but that doesn’t mean injustice is over. It’s still all around us, it’s still causing pain, and it’s our time to stop it.

At the rally they led us in a song. I shot a quick video of part of it:

Oh the day’s gonna come when I won’t march no more
The day’s gonna come when I won’t march no more
But while my sister ain’t equal
And my brother can’t breathe
Hand in hand with my family we will fill these streets.

I can’t help but think of the day that will come when we don’t have to march or cry or fight or despair no more. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a kingdom hope, but it doesn’t have to be an unattainable hope.

This whole thing is hard and complicated and painful and difficult. If you’re feeling those things, I feel them with you. Please listen.

At the end of the rally they had ribbons and asked us to write something on the ribbons. Here’s what we wrote:

Black Lives Matter A Lot Black Lives Matter!My Boy Shouldn't Cry No More!

Black Lives Matter: Listen & Finding Solutions

News broke this evening of no indictment in the death of Eric Garner. I wasn’t following this news very closely, but it serves as just one more incident of unnecessary death.

In the span of a few weeks 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police, within seconds of police arriving on the scene; there was no indictment in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Mo.; and now there’s no indictment in the Eric Garner case.

Where the Michael Brown case might seem murky (no video, conflicting stories, charging the officer), the Eric Garner case seems much more direct. There’s video of the confrontation and while Garner is subdued on the ground an officer has him in a choke hold and doesn’t let up, even though the NYPD doesn’t authorize that kind of force.

Their are now protests around the country. My Twitter feed is lit up with outrage.

I don’t want to debate the ins and outs of any of this. I’m tired of that. But there are two things bothering me: Continue reading Black Lives Matter: Listen & Finding Solutions

Be a Human

Have you seen the story about the Green Bay alderman quizzing a Muslim about terrorism before answering her question? Crazy.

Here’s the full blown exchange and the USA Today story, but basically the woman, Heba Mohammad, emailed Green Bay Alderman Chris Wery asking about free public transportation on election day. An innocent question, especially considering Green Bay offers free bus service on Packer game days, and not a bad idea. But beside the point.

Instead of answering, Wery asks Mohammad about her background with a local Muslim student group:

I just want to be assured that your group in no way promotes or defends militant Islamic ideology or Sharia law. Do you and the MSA condemn both of those as well as terrorist groups such as HAMAS?

What?!

Wery has quickly apologized, brushing it off as being busy with too many things at once. He realizes he was too blunt and phrased it poorly.

I’ll say. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt, sure, even Mohammad was impressed he called to apologize.

But let’s treat each other like people, OK? You don’t grill someone about stereotypical associations before being willing to talk to them. Especially when you’re an elected official.

Nobody asks me if I condemn the KKK before taking my questions.

College or Jail?

Facts like this make white privilege real for me:

African American males have a higher chance of being incarcerated than they do of earning a college degree. (TakePart)

Talking about privilege is difficult. People get defensive. When you talk about inherent advantages it implies to some people that their hard work doesn’t matter. See? Difficult.

But that doesn’t change the fact that privilege is real. Lots of ways to get your head around it. If you’re not there yet, keep trying.

But don’t tell me that race is not still a problem in this world, or worse, that racism against whites is a bigger problem.

That’s right: White people believe they’re being discriminated against more than black people. (How’s that for playing the victim, which I believe is what this mindset likes to accuse black people of doing.)

Reverse discrimination is such a hardship for us whites. Meanwhile black men are more likely to go to jail than earn a college degree.

Let’s open our eyes.

Help Close the Achivement Gap

I’ve been talking about Ferguson for the past week or so, and it’s left me feeling raw and frustrated and powerless. That’s a good time to take action.

This isn’t directly related to Ferguson, but I think it is a good way you can help the general problem of racial disparity we see at work in Ferguson.

The Achievement Gap

Minnesota is one of the top states in the country for education. We’re also one of the worst states in the nation for the achievement gap. What’s that mean? It means the performance gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota is among the worst in the nation.

So to put it bluntly—Minnesota has a great education system, but only if you’re white. If you’re a student of color, you’re not going to do as well.

Here are some reading scores from St. Paul Public Schools: 2014_08achievegap

(see the full PDF report)

Now those are older numbers (2004-2006) and the state is making a concerted effort to improve. But a recent report noted that both Minneapolis and St. Paul are only hitting state goals for white students.

The achievement gap is a very real problem. It can go on to impact all sorts of other things: graduation rates, college, income levels, etc.

If we want to break the racial disparity in the United States, we must address the achievement gap.

What’s it Look Like Locally?

The West Side neighborhood has had a problem with under-performing schools. Here’s some data comparing three schools in St. Paul’s West Side and the city of West St. Paul (which are two different school districts):

2014_08schoolscomp

(You can get this data for any school from the Minnesota Report Card.)

Cherokee Heights is the elementary school for the West Side. Nearly all of their scores are below 50%. Only 27% of their students are “on track” for success. Students have not made a year’s progress (AYP) in reading for the last five years (2009-2013). The racial breakdown for Cherokee Heights is also incredibly diverse: 88% people of color.

By comparison, Garlough and Somerset are both schools in the nearby West St. Paul district. Garlough’s scores are in the 50-75% range and Somerset is in the 75-100% range. Garlough has 68% of their students “on track” for success and has made AYP for all but two of the last five years in reading. Somerset has 71% of their students “on track,” and has hit AYP all five years. Demographics wise it should be no surprise: Garlough is 60% people of color; Somerset is 20%.

One Way to Fix the Achievement Gap

I don’t say any of this to throw Cherokee Heights under the bus. They’ve got hard working teachers doing their best. But they’ve got a long way to go.

Now I’m also not an expert on the achievement gap. But my wife is a kindergarten teacher. She knows this stuff. She works at a new charter school in the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul called West Side Summit. Charter schools are public schools with a specific focus, and are effectively their own district.

West Side Summit’s goal is to close the achievement gap.

They’re working with the same population as Cherokee Heights (West Side’s population breakdown is slanted more Hispanic and less black and Asian, but it’s very similar: 84% people of color). They’re using a new blended learning model—the only elementary school in Minnesota doing it—where the kids work on computers for large chunks of the day, using programs that adapt to what each kid needs to learn. They also have an extended school day and an extended school year—more time in the classroom.

And they’re doing it. In the school’s first year the entire school averaged a year and a quarter’s progress in reading (West Side doesn’t have data in the Minnesota Report Card site yet; my data comes directly from the school). That may not sound like much, but most schools aren’t hitting AYP at all, let alone going above and beyond. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts as a whole haven’t hit AYP at all for the last five years in reading. Even the West St. Paul district (with the highly achieving Somerset school above) has only hit it in 2013.

Get to the Point!: How You Can Help

So aside from depressing you about the state of our schools (remember: Minnesota is among the best in the nation), what’s the point?

Giving kids access to books has been hugely important. A previous Donor’s Choose project put a ton of audio books in my wife’s classroom. Last year her class had a year and a half’s progress in reading. That’s amazing!

Right now my wife is doing a Donor’s Choose project to put iPods in her classroom. The iPods will be a big improvement over CD players—no more scratched discs, no more dying batteries, plus kids can record and listen to themselves reading. It’s an innovative way to get kids into books, boost their reading and close that achievement gap.

The project total is nearly $1,500. That’s a lot of money. However, the Bill & Malinda Gates Foundation is offering a 50% match if the project can be completed before Sunday, August 24. That’s tomorrow. So we need your help now!

As I’m writing this, we only need $450 more to hit the goal and get the matching grant. Will you help? Please donate now.

I realize this is only one tiny way to help close the achievement gap. It’s a giant problem with far-reaching consequences and there are probably a million things we could be doing.

But that’s overwhelming. This is one way you can help right now.

Thanks for your support.

Update: The project was fully funded on Sunday, August 24. We did it before the deadline and got the fully matching grant. A big thank you to those who donated.

Do I Teach My Son That Police Are Heroes or How Not to Get Shot?

In the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting and the chaos in Ferguson, Mo., there are so many questions and frustrations rolling around in my head.

I managed to write about it (in brief) on Church Marketing Sucks yesterday, simply encouraging churches to address the many pains and hurts in this world and asking, “How long must we sing this song? How long, Oh Lord?”

Don’t Get Shot

One of the painful and difficult questions I’m struggling with is that Ferguson happened this week. A black teen was walking down the street and ended up shot to death by a police officer. Another reminder that parents of black children simply must teach their children how to deal with racial profiling and harassment:

“As a father, I should not have to teach my kids how to be arrested. I should not have to teach my son to do everything possible to make sure that you are not killed out here in these streets when a police officer pulls you over.” (NPR)

I need to teach my son how not to get shot by the police.

Police Are Heroes

But two weeks ago a police officer was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop not two blocks from my house. The work police officers do is dangerous. They put their lives on the line to protect our communities.

The out-pouring of support for Officer Scott Patrick and his family was incredible to behold. As it should be.

The night before the funeral procession we had the Night to Unite block party. Police, firefighters, EMTs and city officials were making the rounds, handing out glow sticks, tattoos and stickers. They were welcomed, encouraged, thanked.

I need to teach my son that police officers are heroes to be trusted and respected.

How Do I Reconcile the Two?

I don’t know how to reconcile those two. There are some petitions advocating for new federal laws and cameras. That’s something. The militarization of police is especially troubling in this case and makes it all the murkier.

I don’t want police officers to get killed, but is it necessary to send six squad cars to arrest a black woman for jaywalking? I don’t want anyone to get killed, but these are the disturbing realities we need to face.