Tag Archives: racism

Diversity Is Not Enough

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism.” (“Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”)

In many ways it comes down to white privilege (that phrase can be difficult to digest—this is the best explanation of white privilege I’ve found). The white establishment (i.e., people like me) doesn’t understand what people of color face.

People like me are blind to all the small things that are stacked up against people of color. Each one on its own seems small, but together it creates institutional racism. The result is things like the Noah movie using an all white cast as “stand-ins for all people” because “race doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that, that’s white privilege.

If you watched the Noah movie and didn’t think it odd that everyone was white, that’s white privilege.

Or any movie.

As G. Willow Wilson commented, “Where are all the black people in Middle Earth? The answer is ‘In Laketown,’ apparently.” Extras in the Laketown scenes in the second Hobbit movie were the first non-white human characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you think it’s political correct garbage to want racial diversity in a fantasy movie, that’s white privilege.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

It reminds me of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas where the 9-year-old Bruno is oblivious to the German Holocaust, even though he lives outside the gates of Auschwitz. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, but is completely unaware of the ostracism and hatred his friend endures.

Bruno is not antisemitic. He’s not even aware of the German propaganda about Jews, and when he hears it he doesn’t believe it. But he’s blind to all the barriers Shmuel faces as a Jew in 1940s Germany.

It’s not an ideal comparison. But it feels familiar. When people don’t understand the need for diversity or insist that we’re beyond racism, it reminds me of Bruno.

Double V For Victory: Racism in World War II

Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and World War II is yet another area that has captured my interest. Racial segregation was the norm across the South, in the nation’s capital and also in the armed forces. Even blood collected for wounded soldiers had to be segregated by order of the War Department.

In that atmosphere of inequality and second class citizenship, it’s not hard to see parallels between the fascist and racial supremacy ideals of Hitler and the segregation of Jim Crow.

As civil rights activist (and my new hero) Pauli Murray put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, “We are as much political refugees of the South as any of the Jews of Germany.” As the Holocaust showed Hitler’s tyranny was far more gruesome and deadly, but blacks in the South faced lynchings, intimidation and degradation as a way of life. White racists of the South weren’t that far removed from Nazi Germany.

Murray argued for equality as part of the war effort, saying: “We cannot come into the world struggle for democracy with dirty hands.”

As the draft began blacks posed a fair question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” That’s how James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kan., put it, as he proposed the Double V campaign:

“The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory for our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”

Published and promoted by the Pittsburgh Courier it became a rallying cry that gave blacks an opportunity to support the war effort and maintain their dignity.

The Double V campaign didn’t succeed initially on the home front, but in 1948 Harry Truman ended segregation of the armed forces by executive order. In the 1950s other challenges to segregation would mount and it would eventually crumble beneath the march of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, 20 years after World War II and the Double V campaign.

Thinking About Trayvon Martin: Let’s Listen

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was released Saturday night: George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

And the conversations exploded.

There are people on all sides of this issue and it can be difficult to talk about. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it. A lot of smarter people have said smarter things about this, so go read them.

Then I’ll throw in my two cents:

1. Listen
But one thing has become clear to me: A lot of black people, among others, are very angry about this verdict (and the case in general, regardless of the verdict). If you don’t understand why, then I think it might help to do some listening. The specifics of the case almost don’t matter—just listen to people. Even if their anger is misplaced (which I don’t think it is), I think it helps to understand their perspective.

At the very least it would promote some compassion. It would minimize the tone deaf comments.

After all, a kid is dead. A community is shaken. A man who took a life is walking away not guilty and free, though hardly free.

I posted last week about what LeVar Burton does to avoid getting shot. This is the reality for black families in America. Most of us are clueless about what they go through. And now there’s the Trayvon Martin case on top of it. You can only begin to understand that by listening. As one of those smarter people said:

“Black people, on the whole, experience a very different America than white people.”

If you bristle at that statement, don’t challenge it. Listen.

2. Expand Your Circle
Of course listening doesn’t do any good if you’re in an echo chamber. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who think like you, people who believe what you believe, people who look like you, people who vote like you.

It’s an easy place to find yourself. You might think that you’re a well-versed person, that you consider all sides and perspectives, that you’re well connected and plugged in. But maybe not.

As a part of our adoption training we went through an exercise where we were given a number of colored beads and a cup. The facilitator would name different people in various roles and positions, and we had to drop a bead in the cup every time one of those people was someone of a different race. So we’d talk through different people—doctor, dentist, barber, friends, family, boss, coworkers, neighbors, pastor, favorite author, favorite musician, favorite actor, etc.

You get the idea. As you can imagine, I didn’t have many beads in my cup.

Well, sure, I live in Minnesota where the non-white population is only 17 percent (up from 1% in 1960). Whatever. Don’t make excuses.

It was eye-opening. And I bring it up because if you’re not listening to a diverse group of people then you’re missing out. You can’t really understand the perspective of a group of people unless you know them. I had never heard of Karen refugees until they started filling up my church. Suddenly their story and the general persecution in Burma (highlighted by Aung San Suu Kyi, inspiration for the U2 song “Walk On”) became a lot more personal. It’s what makes InvisiblePeople.tv so effective: Allowing you to hear the stories of homeless people. In the Trayvon case, the raw wound within the black community becomes a lot more obvious—and you become more sensitive to it—when you actually listen to black people. As Jim Wallis said:

“If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”

Some article I read somewhere (and of course now can’t find) compared it to Democrats or Republicans who only talk to like-minded people and have a hard time seeing anyone on the other side as being a normal, sane person. It’s part of why politics is so poisonous today.

And of course expanding your circle isn’t just about having sympathy for people’s pain or better understanding where they’re coming from even if you disagree. You can discover a lot of cool stuff too.

So Start Listening to an Expanded CircleThe good news is that it’s something you can easily fix in our digital age. Start listening to people who are different from you, whether it’s race, gender, creed, age, socioeconomic status, location, politics, etc. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Here’s the key: When they say something that bugs you, don’t unfollow or defriend. Stick it out. It’s especially hard when it comes to politics or faith, but stick with it. And don’t pick fights. That’s definitely not why you’re listening.

I’ve been trying to expand my circle. I went to a small, Christian, mostly white, liberal arts college, so I get the bubble. I’m also an introvert who works at home, so my circle is pretty small.

It’s a small start, but that’s how we get anywhere.

On Saturday night, when the Trayvon verdict came out, I saw a lot of pain and anger. If I hadn’t been listening, I would have been clueless and tone deaf.

How LeVar Burton Avoids Getting Shot

The host of Reading Rainbow and star of Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton, has a specific ritual to keep from getting shot by police:

We like to congratulate ourselves on our black president and pretend racism doesn’t exist in America.

LeVar Burton’s story says otherwise.

It’s insane. But it’s common sense for Burton. The way everyone else in the video responds is a good indication that Burton’s little ‘don’t get shot’ ritual is the norm.

It’s one of many things I’ll have to teach my son, the kinds of things I don’t normally have to think about because I’m white.

2012 Election Reflection

Obama family at 2012 election night acceptance speech

Presidential election night is such a nervous, glorious mishmash of emotions. I can think of no other event when something so big is decided so quickly. Sure, the election drags on forever, but despite the polls you never know for sure who’s going to win. Then everybody votes, we tally ’em up while some talking heads blather on, and it’s decided (usually: thank goodness for not repeating 2000). Done. The next four years are in place. History is written.

It’s big.

I have a hard time getting anything done on election day (that’s why I turned to a distraction). Even today I’ll need to process for a while (and I’m doing that here… get ready for a long post). Continue reading 2012 Election Reflection

Don’t Know Much About History

For our various driving trips over the past few months I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. It’s a vast overview of American history from pre-Colonial days until 2001. I found it to be oddly captivating, especially as it helped to fill in gaps in my knowledge of history, including the War of 1812, Reconstruction, the Korean War and more.

Any overview of history is sure to have its biases and make choices of content and coverage that someone is sure to disagree with. But some of those choices were especially interesting. For example, the Battle of the Bulge in World War II received more coverage than the Apollo moon landing. Alan Greenspan and his control over the boom economy of the 1990s received about as much coverage as the Kennedy assassination. Uncovered spies in the last decades of the 20th century were given thorough treatment in a chapter on the failures of the FBI, while the World Trade Center bombing was only mentioned in passing during the account of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I imagine it’s hard to put history in perspective, especially recent history. But how we make those choices is certainly fascinating.

Looking back on the entire book, it’s bizarre how much space is given to war. Each and every war was given a thorough overview, including the reasons for the war and the important milestones of each war, such as major battles. It seems odd to give so much space to each individual battle. Surely wars themselves and the reasons for each war were important to cover, but I don’t get the emphasis on each minute rise and fall. Wars shape our society, without a doubt, but I would think other social factors would have more importance than the Battle of Midway.

The other feeling I was left with was the incredible failure of mankind. Again and again we’re confronted with disgusting realities, whether it’s the Constitution declaring black men to be three-fifths of a person, the savage treatment of Native Americans justified by their supposed savageness or the national superiority that sees immigrants as lesser persons, despite the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants.

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was one such incident, a racially motivated powder keg that saw an entire black neighborhood burned to the ground and several hundred people killed. It was such an ugly affair that it was expunged from local records and never acknowledged until recently.

History is full of this kind of sadness.

But as I was driving across the prairies of Kansas hearing about the civil rights movement, I found moments of hope. In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case the Supreme Court finally overturned more than 50 years worth of racism that had been enshrined in U.S. court decisions. What’s perhaps most amazing about this is how Chief Justice Earl Warren convinced the other justices to issues a unanimous ruling, leaving no question as to the utter defeat of segregation. The back story is even more intriguing, that the court was actually re-hearing the case and that Warren was appointed chief justice before this final re-hearing. Ironically, President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of Warren the “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”

I was hearing this history while driving past exits for both the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. You don’t always think about it, but Kansas has been a flashpoint for racial progress going back to the Bleeding Kansas days when the territory was at the middle of a slave vs. free state debate.

In spite of all our failures, weakness and stupidity—both then and today, for surely we have our own failures we’ll one day be explaining to our children—there is always room for hope.

When Marian Anderson Sang

Marian Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Anderson performing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

I love that my wife is a kindergarten teacher. It means we have a vast collection of good children’s books—so many that I haven’t read a lot of them.

So today when Lexi pulled When Marian Sang off the shelf for her pre-naptime book, I was reading it for the first time. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells the story of black singer Marian Anderson and her struggles in the segregated, pre-civil rights America. I’d never heard of Marian Anderson before, but her tremendous voice was respected around the world.

In 1939 Howard University brought Marian to Washington, D.C., to perform. They tried to book Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), who ran the hall, refused to allow Marian to perform because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. over the incident.

Marian eventually performed on Easter Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial to a mixed-race crowd of 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.

In 1943 the D.A.R. invited Marian to perform at Constitution Hall in support of the war effort. She agreed on the condition that the seating be mixed (as opposed to an all-white crowd or only allowing blacks to sit in the balcony). The D.A.R. agreed and it was the first time in the history of Constitution Hall that blacks and whites sat together.

I got choked up a few times reading the story and could barely keep it together. The injustice and cruelty of America’s history of racism is just stupid. I don’t have a better word for it.

At the point in the story when Marian isn’t allowed to apply to a music school—”We don’t take colored,” she’s told—there’s a picture of Marian’s mother comforting her. Lexi and I had this exchange:

“What’s wrong with her?” Lexi asked, pointing to the picture.

“She’s sad,” I said.

“Why is she sad?”

“They wouldn’t let her go to school because of the color of her skin.” My voice was already wavering, trying to hold it together.

“That’s not fair!” Like most kids, Lexi exclaims this over the most mundane things (no dessert, bed time, etc.), but she had real anger this time.

“No, it’s not fair,” I said, shaking my head and biting my lip to keep from sobbing.

Knowing her experience makes the words of the spirituals she sang all the more poignant: “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow…”

Overcoming Hate with Love

I have a hard time appreciating just how incredible the American Civil Rights movement was. I just watched this video, how to defeat the KKK, and then did minimal research on Wade Watts and read this story about his interactions with former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary. Watts was one of many heroes in this movement, a man I’d never heard of before. I love this story:

When Oklahoma State Sen. Gene Stipe and civil rights activist Wade Watts walked into a restaurant in the late 1950s, a waitress confronted them at the door and told Watts, an African American, that the restaurant did not serve Negroes.

With a smile, Watts replied, “I don’t eat Negroes. I just came to get some ham and eggs.”

And that’s tame compared to Watts’ reactions to Clary as detailed in the video. That’s incredible love in the face of overwhelming and completely overt hatred.

Continue reading Overcoming Hate with Love

Race in the Obama Era

I came across two interesting stories last week involving race (apparently today is blog about stuff I found last week day).

The first is a Newsweek article about a black family that adopted a white girl. It’s an interesting story and sad that multi-racial adoption seems to only be accepted one way.

The second is this photograph of a young black boy and U.S. President Barack Obama. The boy asked to touch Obama’s hair to see if it really felt the same as his. It’s another reminder that children don’t see race the same way adults do.

The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.Last week I talked a bit about Martin Luther King Jr. being a radical. Today it seems appropriate to look at some of his radical words.

On love vs. hate:

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

On nonviolence:

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” (Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1964)

Continue reading The Radical Words of Martin Luther King Jr.