symbolic dominance, culture and religion

When the war of the yard signs was at its peak some years ago, I wanted to put three popular signs in my yard, all together:

Let Your Light Shine: Fight Racism
We Support Gays and Lesbians
Keep Christ in Christmas

My state celebrates the winter season with the war of the symbols.  Nativity scenes on public property justly spark lawsuits by those who are not Christian.  Menorahs and “separate church and state” banners flank the decorated evergreen tree whose very name is subject of debate in the legislature.  Proposals to include Wiccan pentacles and jokes about Festivus poles add to the fun.  Some Christians have decided that “their” holiday has been ruined by any acknowledgment of others, even by as simple an expedient as a generic “Happy Holidays” in public space or by using the name “holiday tree” for a decorated evergreen, itself a pagan symbol morphed into a Christian symbol for a pagan Roman holiday morphed into a Christian holiday.  This seems to me to be so clearly about cultural dominance, not religion, that I find all the arguments unsettling.  The Christmas centered on shopping malls and Santa Claus and Christmas trees is not a religious holiday, unless the religion in question is capitalist consumerism.

The religious holiday centered on the symbol of the nativity is about God embodied in a new human child, a light in the darkness, a hope for the oppressed.  For those of us in this tradition, it is a symbol well worth contemplating, and any Christian of conscience wants to lift up the nativity and downplay the materialist excesses of the secular Christmas.  So it is doubly ironic and sad that deploying this symbol in public space is an act of cultural domination over religious minorities, not a challenge to excess and greed.

As a practicing Christian, albeit a theologically liberal one whose right to the name is disputed by more conservative Christians, I struggle to find a way to be authentically who I am without oppressing others. Continue reading “symbolic dominance, culture and religion”

Splaining

This essay is about the phenomenon often called mansplaining (with its variant whitesplaining). It is prompted a recent 90 minute episode of what felt to me like mansplaining. Any use of the term mansplaining or whitesplaining in mixed company typically evokes complaints that the term itself is sexist/racist. Even our own scatterplot had a minor eruption of this conflict when mansplain was used to describe something women had said to a man  Of course both mansplaining and whitesplaining are very common special cases of the more general privilegesplaining or, better, just splaining. The term splaining has not been applied to class, or to student vs. professor status, or other hierarchies, but it could and should be. Let’s begin by saying that I am often guilty of splaining, at least in the basic sense of telling someone else something they already know or of speaking with confidence about something that is later revealed to be wrong. In fact, when I told my spouse what I was thinking about, he said: “well, you know, you do that.” As if I didn’t know that. This essay is thus not about my own virtue and others’ vice, but about unpacking the idea of splaining, examining its sources and making distinctions. And then explaining why we don’t stay neutral about it. Continue reading “Splaining”

Screwing up

I’m not going to link to the post* because I’m still embarrassed at messing up so badly, but despite all my “practice” in mixed-race setting, I got myself in an emotional knot and made a posturing inappropriate comment in a blog thread in which Black women were talking in really deep and important ways about their experiences. Even though I really wanted to connect human to human with the tread, my comment was more focused on trying to present myself as experienced and liberal than on connecting with the experiences people were writing about. When called on it, I apologized, and I tried to behave myself thereafter, but I know the people over there think I’m a jerk, and I feel bad about it. So I’m just sitting with the bad feeling, because I think it is good for me. This is not the first time I’ve realized I’ve been a jerk, and I’m afraid it won’t the last. It’s too darn easy to be smug about racial issues when you spend a lot of time with White folks who are more clueless than you are, so as painful as this is, I’m accepting it as an important reminder that there is an objective reason why humility is the best stance.

I knew when I was writing my comment what the ground rules were, and I know that the reason I screwed up was that I got myself in an emotional tizzy that left me more worried about my own feelings than about the needs and feelings of other people. One thing that drives people of color crazy is having to deal with the emotional needs of White folks confronting their own internalized racism and discomfort in charged interactions. If you are White and paying attention to what is really happening and what people of color are saying about their experiences, it can feel just awful, and you feel like you need to be DOING SOMETHING to help, or to distance yourself from all that awfulness. These are legitimate feelings and we White folks need to deal with those feelings, but we need to do it with other White people, I think, because people of color have their hands full already dealing with being the targets of racism.

This ties in with the theme in church yesterday, Hearts Breaking Open. It was done in music and song and was a lot more poetic than I am, but the general point was that we have to let our hearts break, let ourselves be open to the suffering in the world. We cannot fix the world, but we can respond to the world by letting it into our hearts. One of the lines (someone was being quoted, but I don’t know who) was: philosophy is safer than love. When we are confronted with the suffering of others, it is too easy to shut the heart down. It is safer to intellectualize or to be cynical than to feel all that pain. Or to focus on our own pain and not other people’s needs, like not visiting a loved one with a terminal illness because we “just can’t bear to see him that way.” We were reminded that the world is both very beautiful and very broken, and we live amidst that beauty and that pain. When we open our hearts to both the beauty and the pain, we have the possibility of responding to others’ needs.

* OK, I realize this is more stupid impression management. Of course I should link to the really WONDERFUL post and discussion thread over at stuff white people do in which Black women talked in honest detail about their experiences, where the discussion really evolved and they explored commonalities and differences. One line of discussion, for example, involved their common experiences in programs for the gifted. Another was about not being treated as feminine. The main theme was the “Strong Black Woman” who can take anything, whose feelings don’t matter. It is painful, wrenching, but also very thoughtful and insightful and truly beautiful. My heart was broken open by reading what they wrote, even as it was also broken open by recognizing my own brokenness.

when you are called racist

EDIT: Based on comments received, I now believe that this should be rewritten to make it clear that complaints about racism are often well-founded and that White people ought to listen more to people of color and think about what they say. I’ve been trying to work periodically on a reprise, but find I’m not ready to finish it yet. As I note in the comments, when I posted this I did not expect it to get external links and a lot of traffic. I’m leaving it up so readers can see the comments and reactions.

This is an edited version of what I wrote for my students after a class discussion about the responding when someone calls you racist. The discussion started when a student described an upsetting experience of a homeless man calling her racist because she would not accept a jar of pennies in payment (it was against company policy). I made points I’ve made before about Whites overreacting to the r-word, including the story about teachers overreacting. I cut off discussion prematurely because of concerns about not getting farther behind in lecture materials due to the expectation (which proved correct) that I might miss class the following week, so I sent them this memo, which I think may be of interest to some readers of this blog.

Some of you were upset* because I seemed to be saying that it was OK for minorities to use the word racist as name-calling and Whites should just ignore it, while others were upset with me for seeming to say that any use of the word racist is just name-calling. I actually did not mean either. What I should have been trying to draw out is the whole complexity of the situation and the different perspectives different groups bring to the table. I’ve written some material (below) to explain how I see this, by developing two contrasting points of view – the “minority” (especially Black) view, and the “majority” (White) view. These are both extremes and there are many people who don’t fit these extremes, but I hope it will help to explain the point. Continue reading “when you are called racist”

My jaw dropped: racial interactions

I study racial disparities in criminal justice, but this still completely blew me away. I started clicking around and have ended up collecting links to a large number of quite amazing videos of racial interactions that would be great discussion-starters in class. The two segments that just make my jaw drop were broadcast last February on ABC 20-20’s “What Would You Do?” series last February. They are a little over six minutes each after a 15 second commercial*. The setup is a parking lot in a public park in a White suburb. In part 1, for several hours three White boys overtly vandalize a car. Dozens of White people walk by, looking but doing nothing. Only one ever calls the police; a few say something to the boys. In part 2, three Black boys do the same thing: lots of people call the police, many more people intervene.  In both cases, there is overt criminality going on, although possibly so overt that people might have defined it as some kind of stunt. On balance, a clear demonstration that failure to sanction overt White crime is part of a racial disparity pattern, not just response to Black crime. But the real shocker: while the White kids are vandalizing the car, the police DO get TWO 911 calls from the same parking lot. What they call about is Black people SLEEPING in a nearby car: they phone it in as “possible robbery!”

Vandals 1 (white)
Vandals 2 (black)
(*I found these originally on Youtube but link to ABC despite the commercial opening in the interest of supporting copyright holders where possible.)

Edit: here’s a more recent episode, this time involving kids trying to cut the chain on a bike lock.

There are also some really chilling Driving While Black segments available.

This 10-minute segment was produced by a New York news station about Nassau County. It is really quite incredible, the tester ends up handcuffed and held for thirty minutes after making a U-turn on a residential street and refusing to explain what he is doing in the area. No response to White testers who duplicate the action, although the Blacks in the trailing news car are stopped and hassled.

This ABC Primetime episode on Driving While Black is also very good, but the YouTube versions are all scratched and vertically stretched. I cannot find an on-line version of the original. The first segment is 10 minutes, the second is about 2 minutes of wrap-up
10 minute main segment
2 minute wrap up

A Fox news video shows a black customer being surrounded and beaten by whites but the black man is the only one arrested

The ABC Primetime What Would You Do? series also has a number of great segments (generally 8-10 minutes long) about bystander intervention into overt cases of racial/ethnic discrimination. Actors play the part of store clerks or real estate sales people who overtly insult and harass Black or Muslim or Spanish-speaking lower class (day laborer) shoppers (also actors). Bystander responses are videotaped. Each segment shows lots of people either standing by without intervening or in some cases approving the discrimination, but also highlights people who do intervene. John Dovidio (a psychologist known for work on bystander intervention) provides commentary that praises those who do intervene. Again, these seem like great discussion-starters. I linked to YouTube when I could not find the segment on the ABC site.

Real estate agent insulting Black and Muslim couples looking at a home.

Black shopper in a upscale clothing boutique gets insulted and even frisked

Muslim woman trying to buy an apple Danish (quite a few shoppers join in on the discrimination, while a White man who says is son is fighting in Iraq challenges it)

Spanish-speaking guys in work clothes trying to buy coffee (quite a few shoppers again join in on the discrimination, few seem to speak against it)

H/T to http://stuffwhitepeopledo.blogspot.com/ which pointed me to the Muslim shopper video on YouTube, from which I found the rest through YouTube searches, ABC News searches, and Google.

negotiations

We are trying to get the task force report done. This is a ton of work. Lots of writing. But the most time-consuming part is the endless pre-meeting meetings and conference calls to discuss what to write, how to hold the meetings. Calls and meetings that seem to resolve nothing. There are some real substantive disagreements about certain key issues. But the biggest problem is language. Statements that seem reasonable and neutral to some of us strike others as strident and offensive. Quotations from public hearing statements by offenders, accused offenders, or the family and friends of offenders about unfair or unreasonable aspects of the criminal justice system are viewed by the system people as unsubstantiated hearsay that should not be included in the report. But the consequence would be to banish entirely the voices of those at the bottom of the system. (I’m going to try to see if we can negotiate language that includes them as perceptions.) Even the claim that a lot of people think the CJ system is unfair or biased is subject to critique — how do we know it is a lot of people? Well, if “people” means “Black people,” you have to be living in a hole not to think a “lot of” people think the CJ system is unfair. But of course the people launching that critique don’t think “people” means “Black people.”

Then we are hassling about whether there are “too many” citations for low level offenses. Citations are better than arrests, we mostly agree. But citations come with fines, large fines on the order of several hundred dollars a ticket. This is no biggie if you have a full professor’s income or a lawyer’s income. But if you have no job or a McJob, the fines are huge relative to your resources. So one proposed recommendation is to give fewer tickets. But the system people are upset at any implication that they are giving “too many” tickets or even a lot of tickets. Should I go back and crunch the older data that shows that this area has an extraordinarily high level of “disorderly conduct” arrests? Would actual data even seem relevant to the people having this argument?

And the planning committee is hassling about voting rules, which were never agreed upon at the beginning of the process. Some people were hoping for consensus, although without a clear idea of how you achieve consensus, not to mention the problem that consensus is the same thing as allowing one person to veto. Some of us are pushing for voting, but even then you have to argue about voting rules. Do you have a vote if you are not at the meeting? How will the opinions of people who can’t get to the meeting be assessed? And I won’t even go into the confusion and disputes about the process we went through in collecting and consolidating recommendations. Or the lack of trust that is making every single part of this process difficult. It is exhausting.

enforcing immigration law

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a concern in my area about ICE (immigration) raids and about the sheriff’s policy of telling ICE about possible illegal immigrants. Stated policy is to send ICE the name and birth date of any non-citizen who has been arrested and is processed into the jail, regardless of reason, even for unpaid parking tickets. People are also being grabbed by ICE when they come to court as witnesses or to collect child support. Our task force had a pretty intense discussion of this the other day. The task force combines “system” people (sheriff, police, district attorney, judges) with community activists and social service providers. Several system people have objected to a draft recommendation to change the policy and to some of the assertions the draft makes about what is happening based on one task force member’s conversations with some bailiffs. We know we don’t agree about what should be done – there are deep social conflicts about the immigration issue itself, and about the proper role of law enforcement. So we have to figure out what the report will say.

At first we were going to defer the discussion to the next meeting, as we knew it would be  controversial. But as a member of the writing subcommittee, I said I really needed to know what the policy actually is, so that it could be correctly characterized. I offered to talk to the head of the jail privately later, but the group decision was to take “five minutes” to get this clarified. The five turned into thirty, but it was a very instructive thirty minutes. I asked, “so what is the policy, exactly?” Answer: Information about all immigrants is sent to ICE. “So how do you know whether someone is an immigrant? What about Canadians?” Answer: They tell us. We ask if they are a citizen. ” So if someone with a Spanish accent tells you they are a citizen, you believe them, and that’s that?” Answer: Yes . . . [voice trails off, the rest is quieter and the sentence is incomplete] . .  unless there’s other information . . .  The sheriff says: Look, the policy has been the same for thirty years, we ask everyone place and date of birth, citizenship status. “So if someone with a Spanish accent says they were born in El Paso, that’s it? They are OK?”  [No clear answer . . .]   Later in the discussion, people ask why if the policy has been the same for thirty years, it is only in recent years that people are getting arrested when they come into the court house as witnesses or to report to drug court. The sheriff’s answer is that the change is the creation of ICE and ICE policies, not his policies. The DA says it is part of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies. But this implies there are two policies: what you ask people, and what you do with the information. ICE was created in 2003, so the sheriff couldn’t have been sending information to ICE for the last thirty years. The sheriff implies that there is no choice about sending information to ICE, other people think there is.

Then other people ask questions. So how is it that people who come in as witnesses or to collect their child support get arrested? One task force member has talked to bailiffs and says they told her that they go over the names of people coming in and routinely send immigrants’ names to ICE. But the head of the jail says that people are not doing that, he has talked to his supervisors and that just isn’t happening, she is just relying on hearsay. I point out that she talked to some people and he talked to some people: it’s the same thing. More tension. Then he says, well of course in some cases you have to run people through the computer, you have to make sure there are no restraining orders or outstanding warrants. That is part of the job of keeping the court safe. You don’t want people fighting at court. Sometimes an ICE warrant shows up in the national computer, they did not know it would be there, but when it is there, you have to execute the warrant. I say “There are lots of warrants. You can have a warrant out for unpaid parking tickets.” The DA sort of starts to object and the sheriff says that our area is sending parking tickets to collection, not to court orders. I insist: “I know a white guy who was, in fact, arrested and taken downtown for unpaid parking tickets.”  The rest of the story – which I don’t go through – is that he got out quickly when arrangements were made to pay the tickets, but if he had not had a friend who put up the money for the tickets, he would have been sitting in jail for unpaid parking tickets. That is a fact. And the DA knows it is a fact, as he acknowledges when we chat later: the vast majority of warrants are for “failure to appear” in court, which can be for anything. It turns out that legal procedures require running criminal background checks on anyone who will appear as a witness, so it does happen that people come in to be interviewed as potential witnesses and get arrested for outstanding warrants. Although ICE arrests are the current concern, this also happens for other kinds of warrants.

But law enforcement officers vehemently say they do not get to choose which warrants to execute, a warrant is a warrant, that is their job. If they know there is a warrant out for the arrest of a person, they are duty-bound to arrest that person. There is no choice. And so we are back again to the question: when do you run someone’s name through the computer to look for warrants? Do you run the name of every single person who enters the court house through the computer? Well, no, that is impossible. There are too many people going and coming every day, and there is no central list of everyone who is scheduled to come in as a witness or to make an appearance for some reason. So how is it that some people get arrested by ICE when they come to court? Why is ICE waiting for them? Well, we may get a tip or information about someone . .  . [voice trails off . . .]  Hmmm. I think to myself, this ties in with complaints we heard at the public hearing about ICE sending spies into the Latino community. SOMEBODY could well be running the name of every single local Latino through ICE computers and then looking for opportunities to nab the folks who are identified as illegal.

I find it very instructive to hear the law enforcement people and the district attorney insisting that if there is a warrant you have to arrest, this is non-discretionary, this is central to who they are as part of the legal system. This is just non-negotiable. There is a lot of emotion when they say this. It is a very deeply held value at the core of a worldview about what it means to be an officer of the court.

Next people ask whether there is a way for people to find out whether there is a out warrant on them. The DA says that it is not considered good police policy to tell people in advance that they are going to be arrested. Folks pretty much go along with this (although I’m thinking to myself that there are circumstances in which people are allowed to turn themselves in rather than be arrested). But people repeat the question: not necessarily warning people they will be arrested that day, but telling people that they should find out whether there is a warrant out for them, and some way of being able to find this out. After all, the vast majority of warrants are for missing a court date, and the most likely reason for missing the court date is that you forgot it or you never read or understood the summons in the first place  or you didn’t go because you didn’t have the money to pay your fine anyway. I remind people that there are faulty warrants out there – the warrant for the kid who was tasered at the high school when he tried to run away from the police was actually a mistake that shouldn’t have been in the system in the first place. (We all know about that case because both the tasering and the fact that police were arresting a kid at school were big controversies that got a lot of news play.) Law enforcement and the district attorney are looking pretty dubious about the idea of giving ordinary people access to the national law enforcement databases.

The community activists say: OK, we get it that arresting someone if you know there is a warrant out on them is non-negotiable from the point of view of law enforcement. So the community needs to know this and needs to know exactly what the policies are. Can you give us written policies? The sheriff and the DA say the policies are straightforward and clear-cut. But it will take them a while to write them down.

This was a very good discussion, even as it was very intense. I learned a lot. I’m thinking later again about the radically different ways you can look at the same thing. I respect the rule of law and the police view that you don’t choose which warrants to execute, and I can respect the people who feel that violation of immigration law is a violation of law and as long as the law is on the books, they are obligated to uphold it. The real problem is the immigration policy and the disconnect between the formal immigration policy and the reality that Mexican people have always worked in the US. But then I am reminded that the police who helped arrest the Jews in Europe under Hitler were also following orders, and that the US was party to trials that said that following orders is not an excuse, that citizens have a positive obligation to refuse to follow immoral orders. Such discussions were very common in the 1960s regarding citizen obligations about the Vietnam war.  Ivan Ermakoff is working now on a project showing that police in different places actually varied in the zealousness with which they carried out the orders to arrest all Jews. I know that many people would take deep offense at my even bringing this up. Killing and torturing people isn’t the same as deporting them. But I do think the people who want the police to be less aggressive about running people’s names through the computers think that the immigration policy is immoral and that it is the duty of moral people to work around the policy.

Turf

These are excerpts from two longer statements written by Ida Thomas, an older Black woman who only completed the ninth grade and considers herself uneducated. She and I are members of the same racial disparities task force. She has a son who has been in prison. She wrote up her ideas because she wanted me to speak for her at a meeting she could not attend. Most of her writing focused on concrete recommendations relevant to the task force agenda. But I was blown away by some of what she said and wanted to share it. She specifically asked me to edit what she wrote so it would sound good, and I have complied by doing minimal editing for spelling and grammar. All the ideas and word choices are hers. I am posting this to my blog with her permission after reading it to her and receiving her approval. She wants her name used.

What we Blacks fail to realize is that we have invaded their town. We are on their turf now. It’s do like we say or go to prison, for sometimes petty stuff. And we did wrong by coming here, trying to change their ways. They only know how to protect their own color. They are not used to us. Especially the way we think or act. Every race has its own culture. I don’t think this will ever change here if you ask me, Ida. They really want us to go away like the wind, rain, winter and summer.  It’s a nice place to live if you can stay out of their system. But can you be sure to do that here? No. It’s like in the slave days here. Yes Madam, yes sir, you are right. Every Black person here is living on borrowed time for freedom. You have to walk a straight and narrow line. Please let’s change this.

. . .

Many White people do not know how to deal with Blacks here in Wisconsin — they look at us like we are from another planet. Their culture is much different than ours. We think differently, look at life differently. We need people in our culture that will defend us, that understand our way of thinking.  Where are those people for us to communicate with?  .  .  . * Your best bet is to stay out of trouble if you can here, or you will end up with your back up side the wall like so many have done before. It is said, come down here on vacation, go back on paper.**  But that’s not true about going back on paper, because sometimes they want you to stay down here and finish your paper here. That’s unfair because if you sneeze the wrong way you will be going to prison to finish up some of your time. You are never free here.  .  .  .  It’s is a beautiful place to live but there is a price that you have to pay to live here. Myself, I love it here.  But Madison keeps you walking a straight line on a narrow path. Let’s live and let live.

* The omitted material talks at length about the lack of Black judges, district attorneys, public defenders, and police.

** To be “on paper” is to be on probation or parole, i.e. living in the community but under correctional supervision.

Sharing the pain

There’s a lot of dissensus and hard feelings in the interracial task force I’m on right now. Some of it erupted publically the other day at a public hearing (with TV cameras running, no less). Everybody is committed to addressing the issues and cares about them, but this does not take away the divisions among us: divisions by race, class, and  institutional position. We are suspicious of other people’s motives or commitment; irritated what we consider to be their abrasive or insensitive or over-sensitive or authoritarian or disorganized personal style; and tired and frustrated from trying to work on a huge task with too little time while having to put up with our interpersonal differences. We blow things out of proportion and we sit back in sullen silence. We get mad at the chairs, who themselves are exhausted and wounded from working hard to keep everything moving after having an organizational mess dropped on them and then putting up with all the criticism. Although other groups I’ve worked with are racially diverse, this one is more diverse than most of the others by class and background as well as race. Some of us have worked together on boards and committees many times over the years; others have no prior working relations. Anger and distrust abound, despite genuinely shared goals. We talk through a difference, end on a conciliatory and friendly note, and then blow apart again the next time.

Our small work groups were intentionally formed to mix people with different demographic and institutional statuses and tasked with coming up with recommendations on a tight deadline. Many are struggling. My work group exploded again today in anger and recrimination. The last time, I was the angry one; I reached out later to privately talk to and make peace with the person I got mad at. Today I was the calm one while two high level professionals got very angry with each other. At root is a genuine and important conflict about policy priorities and interests and ways of doing things that becomes  personal as people get tired and frustrated about the impasse and try to talk each other into submission. I think I managed to play a constructive role this time and we ended with some forward movement, although there is still a lot of tension. I also talked afterward with one of the disputants, who is taking double heat in our group and as a co-chair. I made a point of telling her how much I appreciate all her work, even though I don’t always agree with her. I also told her that when I get really frustrated and irritated in community meetings – which is often  – I remind myself that the deep differences of interest and experience and the inequalities and injustices that fuel the conflicts are real. Not to mention the cultural style differences that can drive each other crazy. We bring these differences with us when we come to the table. We are experiencing the very pain of the world we are trying to help heal. It’s our share of the pain. She said it helped to think about it that way.

Taking Offense

(I’m mostly busy writing on my overdue project. I wrote this paragraph as part of it, and am fond enough of it that I’ve decided to share it here.)

When confronted with evidence of racial disparities in treatment, one reaction is to blame the measurement. It is not uncommon for agencies or officials to refuse to collect data on race or ethnicity, or to refuse to analyze the data they do have, claiming that the data cannot possibly be meaningful, because race is not real and the classifications are arbitrary. Or they say that they “don’t see race” and treat everyone equally, and argue that collecting or reporting data by race is, itself, racist. Or – and I’ve heard this said quite a few times by criminal justice officials – “the data would be used in the wrong way.” If you ask what that means, it appears the answer is that the data might be used to suggest that there has been racial discrimination by the agency. (I responded to one police chief who said this by saying, “Well, the data could show that you don’t discriminate.” He said, “I never thought of it that way.”) It is sort of like blaming the thermometer for a fever. Or – and this is probably closer to the problem – like blaming the auditor for finding that money is missing from the cash box. The implication is that somebody is a thief. Even asking for the books to be audited can be taken as an insult.

Certain kinds of racial discrimination are illegal and overt racial discrimination on the part of public officials is generally censured. Beyond that, discriminatory behavior is generally seen as stemming from the personal flaw of racial prejudice. Many people believe that prejudice is a moral failing and that unprejudiced people are incapable of discriminating. Evidence of possible racial discrimination is thus seen as evidence of moral turpitude. Just as people are offended at being called thieves, people take offense at any implication that they may have discriminated on the basis of race. I have heard and read quite a few White people assert that calling someone racist is “just as bad as the n-word.” Many people face these issues without the help of even weak understandings of the social science ideas of unconscious discrimination, systematic or institutional racism or discrimination, indirect consequences of actions taken for other reasons, or pernicious interactions and feedbacks among different social forces. They focus solely on whether there is evidence that an actor intended to behave in a racially discriminatory fashion; if there is any ambiguity about intentions then, ipso facto, there must have been no discrimination.

Ethnic Conflict: Them

My reading is full of racial/ethnic conflict these days.  Audible.com was featuring Nathan McCall’s Them: A Novel , which caught my eye as my mind was sensitized to issues of gentrification by David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto.   The story is told from the point of view of Barlowe Reed, a Black printer who lives with his ex-con pigeon-raising nephew in a rented house in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward, home of Martin Luther King.  The story follows the area as it is settled or invaded (depending on your viewpoint) by the so-called “urban pioneers” – that is, White yuppies searching for in-city housing bargains.  I could imagine teaching about the sociology of racial/ethnic conflict using this book.  And as many of Amazon’s reader comments say, it would make a great book club discussion book.  It is about the conflicts arising from wildly different backgrounds and experiences and the very real difficulties in bridging these differences.  The conflict is very much two-sided.  The Black residents don’t want the Whites there and try to get them to go away, with tactics ranging from a general refusal to speak to the Whites to muggings and thefts.   For their part, the Whites see themselves as racial liberals and integrationists, but enact largely-unconscious White racial supremacy as they take over the neighborhood, replacing local institutions with their own, and destroying people’s lives in the process. Continue reading “Ethnic Conflict: Them”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience

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I’m not sure who (if anyone) has stuck with this series, so I’m not sure what your interests are in wrap-up. Drop comments if you want me to address other issues. Here are my thoughts. This was an overwhelming experience in many ways, and there are many threads one could pick up from the things that happened at the conference. I’ll discuss three themes: the content of what people talk about, the importance of listening along with talking, and cultural differences in public talk. I tried to provide a lot of details about what people said and how they said it because I’m very interested in how people talk as well as what they talk about. I have been struck before how the whole tone of interaction shifts when a meeting is dominated by people of color instead of whites. Although the two day conference in Farmtown was a kind of immersion experience, I have had many similar experiences before. As a White person watching the interactions, I’m most struck by how deeply personal and painful these issues are for Black people.* Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #9: Reflections on the Experience”

Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up

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The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk. Continue reading “Public Sociology in Farmtown #8: Ideas and Wrap-Up”

boston boundaries

Boston Percent Black
Boston Percent Black

Walking Boston yesterday, from the hotel north via Newbury Street toward Quincy Market, then through the North End, back around Beacon Hill, and back to the convention hotel area. Lots of rehabilitation of old housing going on, upscale condo developments and the associated upscale services. It is pretty, we were having fun. But I could not help but notice how few Black folks there were on the streets. I recently read David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto. The short version of his argument is that an important part of “revitalizing” cities involved banishing poor Blacks from the [White] affluent civic gaze which, he says, supports the interests of real estate interests who make a lot of money on the creation of value through gentrification and other processes. Part of what he talks about is intense and aggressive policing in many cities to stop and harass poor Blacks who venture into the gentrified areas. I have not studied up on the specific history of Boston, but I could not help but think about this as I was walking around. So when I got back to my hotel room, I used the Census Bureau factfinder mapping site to generate maps of the City of Boston, showing % Black by census tract. This is of course 2000 data, I don’t know what has changed, and did not plot the income distributions. I’ve put a red circle about where the convention hotel site is. As you can see, Black folks are not living all that far from the convention site, but are not very present in this area. I don’t know anything about what is going on locally. Just wondering.

I talked to my spouse between writing this post and figuring out how to post graphics. While I was off working, he took a walk into the medium green (integrated) area on the map (up Columbus Avenue, for any locals reading) and said it seems like an pleasant integrated area with a nice feel. Couples of both races sitting in outdoor cafes. He passed a Black church letting out from services.

i know how you feel

I have been off at a two day conference on disparities, about which I plan to post when I’ve edited my notes. In the mean time, this cartoon from Lyn Johnston is about disability, but is relevant to whites working on issues of racial justice as well. If you do this, think about the importance of the fourth panel, not just the fifth one.

california dreamin’

Like Jeremy and some other of the scatterbrains, I grew up with a very deep and specific sense of place, although a very different place from his rural Iowa. My mother still lives in the north Torrance house I grew up in, and I’ve been out here visiting. It has been 41 years since I left for college in 1967, although I’ve been back periodically. The area has evolved, although much is the same. Walking yesterday, I realized how small a section of land feels like home – about a square mile. I walked everywhere when I was young, and have never lived in the community as a car-owing adult. This is a neighborhood of one-story tract houses near the corner of Yukon and West 182nd Street. (Map) Many of the houses on my street look pretty much the same as they did 40 years ago, although some are even more run down now than they were then. Others have been substantially remodeled, in some cases into quite upscale dwellings. The vegetable farm that was across Yukon when I was growing up is gone now, replaced by development of 3000 sq ft homes. Continue reading “california dreamin’”

culture, style, race, pain

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my UCC church asked me to lead “conversations about race” I described the first week in my earlier post.  The second week I did a short version of my presentation on race and criminal justice.  Today I began by showing clips of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, first a clip from  ABC news “exposing” Wright (the clip starts with a commercial you cannot avoid) and then a six minute clip from the 2003 sermon which places the “God Damn America” line in its context in the sermon, which is about how nations come and go and don’t always follow God’s law, but God’s law endures.*   We are a pretty liberal congregation and folks mostly laughed and enjoyed Wright’s political references, as well as saying they appreciated the way the sermon had clearly been planned and was making a point about history.  I mentioned why some people objected to the sermon in web comments, even in its longer context, stressing both its political content (as many Whites are unaware of the long tradition of political commentary from Black pulpits) and its “angry” tone, and mentioned that this difference in cultural style is a really big problem.  I also commented that there is a similar problem on the other end, with typical Asian interactional styles being considered by many Whites to be too polite and reserved and not assertive enough.

In response, one White woman said that Wright’s angry tone bothered her and she worried about its lack of “solutions” would that just incite racial animosity.  Then the one Black participant (the same one from last week; everyone else was White) said that Wright was not angry, that he was just expressing himself passionately and forcefully.  She elaborated on this point, talking about her own style and about Black mothers who come in to talk about their children and the White teachers code them as angry when they are just being assertive.  She said, “If I’m angry, you’ll know it.”  (Not saying I’m some kind of cosmopolitan, but based on my experience, the Black woman’s style was on the very mild and soft-spoken end of the range of Black expression I’m familiar with –  well within the range of how I would express myself – and I coded her as warmly and compassionately making the effort to explain a standpoint.)   Then the White woman said that the Black woman sounded angry and aggressive to her, and that she was bothered because the Black woman had interrupted her to make the point, and that the expression “If I’m angry, you’ll know it” sounded like a threat to her.   Continue reading “culture, style, race, pain”

the r-word

A lot of White folks think that a Black person calling someone or something racist is an insult, an attack on a person’s character and a slur that is just as hurtful and bad as the n-word. (This idea was more or less one of the main points in Permanent Collection, a play by Thomas Gibbons that I saw recently. More about that below.) Others who wouldn’t go that far think it is a way to stop a conversation, to put a White person on the defensive and give them no way to reply. I think this way of interpreting the r-word is both sociologically interesting and a big problem in its own right.

Overreaction to the r-word is a big problem in our schools. Some Black children have learned that they can get a big reaction out of naive White teachers who are disciplining them by calling the teacher racist. In one typical scenario, the White teacher backs off on disciplining the child until the child’s behavior is so out of control that she can justify kicking the child out of the classroom; in another, the teacher turns the whole thing into a conversation about trying to get the child to see how much the teacher’s feelings have been hurt by the name-calling. And parent-teacher conferences similarly fall apart – the teacher complains about the child, the parent says the teacher is being racist, and the teacher withdraws into a sullen angry silence, thinking “You are just playing the race card to avoid taking responsibility for your child.” But it is not just the schools, it is everywhere. You point to the vast disparities in Black and White arrest and imprisonment rates and say “this is racist,” and public officials say: “I treat everyone the same regardless of race. How dare you insult my integrity.” Even when the reactions are less extreme, many Whites just shut down when the r-word comes into play.
Continue reading “the r-word”

symbolic dominance, culture and religion

(I originally wrote this over a decade ago, but it seems just as timely now. Updated in 2019 with just a few edits.)

When the war of the yard signs was at its peak several years ago, I wanted to put three popular signs in my yard, all together:

Let Your Light Shine: Fight Racism
We Support Gays and Lesbians
Keep Christ in Christmas

My state celebrates the winter season with the war of the symbols.  Nativity scenes on public property justly spark lawsuits by those who are not Christian.  Menorahs and “separate church and state” banners flank the decorated evergreen tree whose very name is subject of debate in the legislature.  Proposals to include Wiccan pentacles and jokes about Festivus poles add to the fun.  Some Christians have decided that “their” holiday has been ruined by any acknowledgment of others, even by as simple an expedient as a generic “Happy Holidays” in public space or by using the name “holiday tree” for a decorated evergreen, itself a pagan symbol morphed into a Christian symbol for a pagan Roman holiday morphed into a Christian holiday.  This seems to me to be so clearly about cultural dominance, not religion, that I find all the arguments unsettling.  The Christmas centered on shopping malls and Santa Claus and Christmas trees is not a religious holiday, unless the religion in question is capitalist consumerism.

The religious holiday centered on the symbol of the nativity is about God embodied in a new human child, a light in the darkness, a hope for the oppressed.  For those of us in this tradition, it is a symbol well worth contemplating, and any Christian of conscience wants to lift up the nativity and downplay the materialist excesses of the secular Christmas.  So it is doubly ironic and sad that deploying this symbol in public space is an act of cultural domination over religious minorities, not a challenge to excess and greed.

As a practicing Christian, albeit a theologically liberal one whose right to the name is disputed by more conservative Christians, I struggle to find a way to be authentically who I am without oppressing others.  I feel the same way about the rest of my cultural package: White, Anglo-Saxon, United States, highly educated, English-speaking, politically left-of-liberal.  Some people are trying to marginalize and suppress other people’s religion or culture and impose their own.  But even when we don’t want to, majorities culturally tyrannize minorities by our very majority-ness.  Our mother tongue is the language of inter-cultural discourse, our culture-religion is embodied in our calendar, our customs and interactional styles are the taken-for-granted norm.  Even if nativities and the words of religious carols are banned from public spaces, many of my Jewish, Chinese and other culturally non-Christian friends hate Christmas because it so deeply insinuates itself into every nook and cranny of public life.  Everything is closed Christmas Day except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants.  Winter Solstice parties are not really challenging that deep cultural dominance embedded in the calendar.   My university’s religious accommodation policy quite rightly says that a student may be excused from class for any claimed religious observance.  However this policy does not cover Chinese New Year – the Chinese social equivalent of Christmas –  unless you claim this observance is religious.  Sociologically, it is impossible to disentangle religion and culture, and the legal distinction between the two seems to me to be itself a kind of cultural-religious imperialism.

While believing fully that there are good reasons for both church and state to keep church and state separate, I think the church-state debate has led us into too-narrow a view of the problem.  To be publicly who and what I am is itself a challenge to others, a challenge to more conservative Christians who believe that the very definition of Christian must exclude me, a challenge to people of other religions who believe theirs is the true faith, and a challenge to atheists who believe that all faith is delusion.

My very belief that all of these (including principled atheism) are paths to the same God as I understand it offends pretty much everyone, except those who share the belief.  In this, I am just like everyone else.  Assertively being who we are and saying what we believe is inherently a challenge to others who are not like us.  The challenge is particularly problematic when we are in a position of power in a public institution.  It is a challenge even when we do not want it to be, and it is even more a challenge because there are people out there hostilely attacking other people for being who they are and believing what they believe, or even for trying to reduce hostilities.

This dilemma is just as true for all the non-religious parts of our culture: language, interactional styles, political ideologies, family structures, workplace customs.   Naming and owning my Whiteness, my nationality,  my embeddedness in the academy, the specificity of my culture and accent – all will be heard either as a challenge to others or as an attack on my own kind, depending on whether I highlight the positives or the negatives of my heritage.

“You can’t end this here,” says my house guest, an African-American lesbian from a poor inner city family with strong Baptist and Muslim roots who is now a practicing Buddhist.  She has a PhD and has traveled around the world and has many more cosmopolitan connections than I have.  She also has a very specific cultural background that shapes who she is and what she cares about.  From her I have learned about the experiences of having a drug addict mother, foster care, criminal relatives, and the complex and often invisible struggles of low income students.  Like me, she has had to come to terms with both the positives and the negatives of her heritage.  Together we figured out the implicit culture of the academy, the things you don’t know that you don’t know you don’t know that are so hard to teach because they are things we know that we don’t know we know.  She has learned to negotiate Whites’ unconscious racial threat and tone down her combative “street culture” style when talking to Whites, and I’ve learned to be comfortable with my “white bread” culture, not as a neutral baseline, but as a very specific culture among other very specific cultures.  As she pointed out, our friendship over the years has changed both of us.

I know what my vision is.  That we can be comfortable in our own skins while appreciating others who are comfortable in their own skins.  That in more fully knowing people who are truly different from us, we come more fully to know and appreciate our own culture and background and open our hearts in compassion to the struggles of others.  This is no panacea.  Sometimes when we learn what other people really think, we are appalled. Our culture and values may lead us to advocate things that are anathemas to others, and other people advocate things that we simply have to oppose.   But I believe that we can passionately work for what we believe is right even as we fully embrace the humanity of those who oppose us.  We can live in the understanding that we are one with all of humanity, with all of existence, and that every other person and being is just as real as we are.  This is not a vision of simple solutions or certainty.  It is a vision that is an anathema to some.  But it is where I stand.