Tag Archives: racism

From Ferguson to Charleston: Institutional Racism

In the past year racism has been in the spotlight more than any time I remember in my life. From Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore to McKinney to Charleston, from police brutality to a white supremacist terrorist. It’s prompting some honest and difficult conversations. I hope you’re joining them.

These events and conversations are important to me. The fact is systemic racism continues to be a problem in America today. It’s not overt like it was during Jim Crow. It’s often subconscious. It’s often systemic. It’s often something we (I) don’t even realize we’re doing. But it’s there.

What’s so amazing about this moment right now is that we’re actually having those conversations. I’m completely shocked that the Charleston shooting has turned into a reexamination of the Confederate flag. In some ways that’s getting lost in the weeds, and if we think removing one symbol is going to change much we’d be mistaken. But it’s a small step of progress to recognize the oppression of our past.

People much smarter than I are weighing in on this issue and saying much smarter things than I ever could. So rather than ramble on, I’m going to link to them.

I’ll just close by saying I think we’re watching history happen. Something is changing in America right now. Let’s be a part of making that a change for the good of all people.

I doubt I’ve lived this out very well this past week (or even months as this conversation has gone on), but it’s a powerful prayer to live up to:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
(St. Francis)

Oregon’s Racist History

Oregon’s original constitution included a “bill of rights” that banned black people the state.

The state used a popular vote to adopt their constitution and had separate votes on two  issues. Oregon residents voted to outlaw slavery with a strong 75% majority. But an overwhelming 89% voted to ban black or any mixed race people from the state.

The laws were technically overturned by the federal government’s 14th amendment, which Oregon ratified in 1866, but then un-ratified in 1868 (largely symbolic).

We like to whitewash our history and think that segregation and racism only happened in the South, or that being anti-slavery meant people weren’t racist. Not so.

I first heard about this history at the White Privilege Conference and Gizmodo has a fascinating blog post about it.

And of course Oregon isn’t the only Northern state with a troubled racial history. The Gizmodo blog links to a story about a black family buying a home in a white, Minneapolis neighborhood in the 1930s and the riot that ensued.

White Privilege & the Ferguson Report

Last week I attended the White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Ky. The name of the conference always raises eyebrows, especially when people don’t understand the concept of white privilege.

The conference gets criticism on both sides. It also gets the attention of the KKK, which tells me they must be doing something right.

So is it a bunch of white people sitting around in a guilt trip? No. It’s not the Privileged White People Conference. It’s about realizing the various kinds of bias we have in our lives—racial and otherwise—how it often leads to oppression of various forms, and what we can do to stop it.

The fact that I’m a white, anglo-saxon male with a college degree gives me certain privileges and biases that color how I see the world. It doesn’t mean I’m a racist, but it does mean I’m immersed in a society built on discrimination. Many of those biases have unknowingly become a part of who I am. It comes up in everything from the color of bandages (why does the “flesh color” match my skin but not my son’s?) to how we related to the police.

For example, Franklin Graham seems to have a different relationship to the police than the black citizens of Minneapolis.

“Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.” -Franklin Graham

“People just feel alienated from the police, or don’t trust the police, or don’t think maybe that the kid is going to be treated fairly, or don’t think that calling the police makes a difference, or don’t feel empowered to engage the police.” -School Board Member Don Samuels, who lives in predominately black North Minneapolis (in a report on the racial bias in Minneapolis policing)

Continue reading White Privilege & the Ferguson Report

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.

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

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