Category Archives: Race and Religion

How Christianity Got Co-Opted and We Got Trump

David Tigabu is a producer and writer based in Washington, DC. In this post, he explores how and why the white American evangelical movement rejects core Christian teachings and embraces Donald Trump.

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David Tigabu

In the wake of the 2016 presidential cycle, readers have been treated to a barrage of think pieces focused on factors that led to the November outcome. Seemingly every publication worth its salt has featured an analysis zeroed in on one demographic in particular—the white working class. This has set off a debate, particularly within the Left, on issues of race and class, how they intersect, and the complex dynamic that is identity. However, the spotlight on the white working class has also overshadowed a much-needed look at a more decisively Trumpian constituency—white evangelicals.

Exit polls reveal that just over 80 percent of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. 80 percent. Trump cheerleader and neo-nazi rag Breitbart gleefully celebrated this occurrence, pointing out that the President received more votes from this faction than any Republican presidential candidate since 2000. To put it more starkly, this means that shameless Bible thumper George W. Bush received fewer votes from this group than a guy who says his favorite book in the Bible is “Two Corinthians.”

So how did this happen? How could white evangelicals vote for a candidate who mocks the disabled, promises to ban adherents of an entire religion from entering the country (a promise he is already acting upon), brags about not “giving unto caesar,” and speaks of groping women by their vagina? How could family values dogmatists and reputed practitioners of morality support the thrice-married candidate with a penchant for lies and a bloated sense of vanity? The answer can be found in two basic truths about white evangelical Christianity—its current state of decline, and its moral and political commitment to maintaining white American hegemony.

The first revelation can be found in the institution’s demographic problem. Simply put, Christianity ain’t the only game in town anymore.  According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in 1974, sixty-three percent of Americans identified as protestant, but by 2014, that percentage had fallen to forty-three percent. Most of this religious decline has been concentrated in white protestant communities. In that same PRRI study, 51 percent of Americans identified as white protestants in 1993, but that number dropped to 32 percent over roughly two decades. Black and Hispanic religious identification has held steady during the same period.

A quick scan of the white protestant blogosphere reflects deep anxiety over this predicament. Attempting to address this issue, a subculture of think-pieces, denominational meetings and conferences have sprouted, devoted primarily to understanding why young people are leaving the church. Some younger protestant groups point to conservative stances on social issues taken by church leaders, while the evangelical wing maintains that the exodus stems from what they perceive to be an increasingly liberal church. Where there is consensus, however, is the idea that the church is currently in a state of crisis.

Former Republican and rigorous evangelical Michelle Bachman echoed this sentiment during an interview on Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) program Brody File, claiming that she believed “without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.”

Trump cleverly tapped into this conviction while appearing on the same CBN show. “I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’ll have a whole different Supreme Court structure,” he said. The group with the most fatalistic view of American cultural change are white evangelical Protestants, three quarters of whom (74 percent) say that American culture has changed for the worse since 1950.

It’s within this context that voting for Trump came to be an act of desperation, a last gasp of sorts. For many white evangelicals, the 2016 election represented a last-ditch effort at preserving a way of life that seemed to be coming to an end. “It’s a math problem of demographics and a changing United States,” Bachmann pointed out. This was in many ways an attempt to cling on to some notion of Christian America

Interestingly enough, today’s concept of a Christian America is a relatively recent development in American political life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, its history does not go back to the country’s founding, and it did not come out of debates over abortion and school prayer. As Kevin Kruse points out in One Nation Under God, the modern evangelical Right was actually formed out of opposition to the New Deal, a series of major public investment initiatives put forward by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.

These policies were developed to address the Great Depression that had hit the country only several years prior, and through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), provided millions of people with employment, retirement income, and housing assistance. To be sure, these programs were far from perfect. For instance, the exclusion of African Americans from many of these wealth building programs played a major role in the racial wealth gap that we see today.

However, a different kind of opposition emerged, one that did not take issue with exclusionary elements of the New Deal as much as they found its programs too generous. Fearing the immense popularity of the New Deal and a nation they thought was heading towards socialism, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) attempted to undermine public support for Roosevelt’s legislation and the broader virus of “collectivism.” Understanding the clout that ministers had, NAM leaders began pushing preachers and religious influencers like James Fifield and Billy Graham, ministers that could peddle a brand of theology more palatable to the interests of big business. Over the ensuing decades, these leaders pushed ideas like the synonymy between Christianity and capitalism, God’s preoccupation with the salvation of the individual, and the broader notion of a Christian America. Once capitalism and individualism were situated under the Christian banner, the fusion of religion and state could be rendered complete.

Issues like abortion, public prayer, gay marriage, and school vouchers would eventually join Christian Libertarianism in shaping white evangelical politics, becoming the most potent political force in the country over the last 40 years. The focus on these issues is ostensibly Bible-based, as Ben Carson and many other evangelicals often like to point out.

Which is all well and good, provided one doesn’t pick up a Bible and read what’s in it. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Christianity’s fundamental ethical decree, makes no mention of homosexuality or abortion, issues that most certainly existed at the time. The passage contains no celebration of entrepreneurship or family values. What is found, however, is a concern for the poor, an embrace of pacifism, a condemnation of judging others, and a rebuke of false prophets masquerading as true teachers. What’s also found is a repudiation of public prayer in which Jesus commands that people “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” a point that does not fit too squarely with school prayer advocates.

Both testaments emphasize a commitment to social justice and liberation, ideals that are nowhere to be found in the white evangelical ethos. Concern for the indigent, the sick, and the immigrant are a constant theme throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

While it may be tempting (read: easier on the conscience) to believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the need to develop more first-century Jewish philanthropic institutions, a more honest reading of that passage indicates that Jesus cared about systems that oppress marginalized people. Yet seeking to confront such systems in an effort to create a more just world is jettisoned by the white evangelical in the name of personal responsibility. These problems are better left to charity. The issue at hand, to paraphrase U2 singer Bono, is that many white evangelicals are more interested in modes of charity than the presence of justice.

At the end of the day, what’s happened in evangelical America is simple: the language and iconography of Christianity has been co-opted to serve a set of narrow political interests, none of which have anything to do with Christianity. The outcome of such a project is the transformation of a social revolutionary murdered by the state into an abstract proponent of American imperialism, greed, patriarchy, and bigotry.

In her book All About Love, feminist bell hooks refers to this dynamic when she writes: “Fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, shape and interpret religious thought to make it conform to and legitimize a conservative status quo.” The fundamental truth about the white American evangelical movement is that its real ethical commitment lies more towards its white American prefix than its evangelical appendage. Donald Trump, with a Republican Congress behind him, is now set on destroying an already meager U.S. social safety net and facilitating environmental disaster, and already appears to be signaling violence towards the country’s most vulnerable communities, all with major support from this particular group.

It’s up to all of us who give a damn about living in a world not governed by white supremacy, corporate rule, theocracy, and environmental destruction to expose these false prophets for who they really are, and how far removed they are from the truly radical message of Christianity.

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Bigotry and Disenfranchisement: Making Sense of Trump Supporters’ Motivations

Like many other people, Jesse Soza has spent a lot of time thinking about what might have motivated Donald Trump’s supporters to vote for him. Soza, a former classroom teacher, discusses the complementary nature of bigotry-based and economic explanations in this post.

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Jesse Soza

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” – Dietrich Boenhoeffer

In the past couple of weeks, the American public has been flooded with a variety of attempts at rationalizing Donald Trump’s unlikely victory over Hillary Clinton. What has struck me is that in almost every piece that I have read, explanations tend to fall into one of two categories. On one side, explanations revolve around the extreme racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia that Trump was able to bring out of his supporters. On the other side, various pieces point to Trump’s ability to speak to a large population of Americans who are experiencing high levels of social, political, and/or economic disenfranchisement.

As each side continues to attempt to validate its case as a way to legitimize or delegitimize Trump’s victory, it has become clear that rational discussion between these groups has reached an impasse. Due to the incredible amounts of emotion tied to this issue, it is not a surprise to see each side making its argument with little to no consideration of the middle ground. The fact that each side has dug in behind its respective strawman argument means that the critical dialogue necessary to begin repairs to American society is unlikely to occur. Such dialogue can only begin when each side is willing to believe that there is some validation in the other’s stance.

With that in mind, the following is my attempt to validate both explanations for how America has reached this point, and to explain how they’re connected. Others, typically in the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, have made similar points about the links between bigotry and a political and economic system that has left millions of Americans behind.  But as I believe a failure to call out bigotry is the most glaring problem in this debate, my focus will be on the undeniable role it has played in this election.

A Historical Commonality

Throughout the course of history, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, etc. and social, economic, and/or political disenfranchisement have been inexorably linked. Over and over again, we see that humans find scapegoats when times get tough, and those scapegoats have often been vulnerable groups within a population. Think about what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Acts of violence towards these groups provided perpetrators with a sense of regaining control and power where there had previously been none or the belief of losing it. Such acts did not actually improve the situation of the disenfranchised, but given their relative lack of persecution, some may have felt better off. The fact that this cause-effect relationship between social hardship and the targeting of vulnerable groups is so prevalent throughout history necessitates a critical examination of current events in America to see if there are similarities. (Spoiler Alert: There are.)

If social and mainstream media’s statement of economically and politically disenfranchised groups is true (which it undeniably is), we must acknowledge what that means at a deeper level: If conservative America considers themselves disenfranchised, they almost assuredly harbor deep anger, resentment and frustration. Whether this anger stems from economic difficulties, political disenfranchisement, or a more deep-seated resentment of the move away from conservative White values (likely a combination of all three for most Trump supporters), it is now clear that there was a powder keg of emotional turmoil hidden within conservative America.

I will admit, at the beginning of this election, that I, like many others, was woefully unaware of the degree to which people were angry with the system. Did I see frustration? Yes. But did I truly know that so many Americans had such deep feelings of alienation? No. The results of the election have shown that the magnitude of anger and frustration residing within many Americans was significantly higher than many of us predicted. How did so many people miss it?

I think such large numbers of people failed to predict the level of anger residing in conservative America because, until recently, that anger had no guided direction. Without a unified bearing, such feelings were hidden behind a veil of superficial civility and tolerance. Sure, we’d see random acts of violence and injustice from hyper-racist groups or individuals, but never did we believe that America’s problems with race, religion, sexual orientation and gender would become a national crisis. Shame on us. We became numb to the signs, and thus somewhat indifferent, to the potential for something much bigger and far more dangerous as a result of what was seeded within our nation. Because we failed to fully realize how strongly conservative America believed that they were losing their nation economically, politically, and socially, no major attempts were made to address the ticking time bomb of anger and resentment that stayed more or less under the radar as these Americans waited for someone who might empathize with their plight and give them direction.

Enter Donald Trump

One of the most common criticisms of Trump is that he never really explained how he was going to actually do anything he was promising. But I now believe that appealing to logic in terms of political action was never what he intended to do. Where I used to chalk up his lack of logic to incompetence, I now have to believe that it was his game plan. Trump’s talent resided in his ability to elicit emotional responses. Early on, he recognized the anger and frustration that was bubbling in the hearts of many Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) and knew that if he could tap into that, he’d get all the support he needed. The question was how he would do it.

Through his speeches, actions and promises, he stoked the emotional fires of those who felt they had been pushed aside by the economy, government and the rest of American society. In doing this, Trump knew that he could win the hearts of his constituency. He provided the age-old answer to “who/what is to blame,” thus giving all their anger and resentment direction and solidifying his status as “the answer.”

That, by itself, wouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing, as almost all strong leaders find some way to tap into the passion of their people and give that passion direction. However, in a reprehensible move, Trump, like so many despots of the past, chose to use fearmongering as the way to achieve this end. He successfully created and fostered the notion that there were enemies among us, implying that if we were to defeat these enemies, America would be great again. Trump’s 21st-century answer to America’s plight was to dehumanize Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, LGBTQ individuals, Jews, and women, painting immigrants in particular as the source of our woes. Historically speaking, when humans are labeled as impediments to progress, the corresponding social response sets a very dangerous precedent. It is frightening to think about what America is already flirting with, especially considering that Trump and his values have not yet officially taken office.

Trump’s bigotry and lust for power have played a primary role in stoking the anger and resentment that has been brewing in conservative America. Furthermore, he knowingly chose to funnel that anger towards vulnerable people. For that, Trump must be held accountable. We must acknowledge that the surge in overt bigotry America is currently experiencing is a direct effect of how Trump chose to run his campaign. Instead of calling for unity and working together as we overhaul a system that has disenfranchised many Americans (regardless of party affiliation), Trump chose to create and lead a modern day witch hunt. And like so many people in the past, a significant portion of downtrodden, resentful and angry Americans have attached themselves to a charismatic leader who is selling the idea that ultra-nationalistic bigotry will be the answer to their anguish.

Yes, Donald Trump spoke to the groups of people who felt that the economy and government weren’t on their side. Yes, he did unexpectedly well because his message was one of reforming a broken system. But we must remember how he framed his message of change. The change he promised was undeniably tied to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, those hateful –isms (and –obias) that have acted as foundations of this country since it was established. He stoked the fires of bigotry and anger without regard for the consequences of his actions simply because he knew that it would draw people to him. For too many Americans, he galvanized the idea that there are people within this country who deserve ire and intolerance. His campaign has not only emboldened individuals to practice injustice towards others, it has legitimized such behavior as a patriotic means of “making America great again.”

Donald Trump is dangerous. While I doubt he’ll be able to do even half of what he promised (though you should take that with a grain of salt, as I had similar doubts about him becoming president), the real danger lies in his capability to foster feelings of hatred and bigotry within a distressed conservative America while disguising such acts as patriotic. As a leader, he will continue to divide the American people and feed into the false notion that acts of injustice and dehumanization will lead to a better, more recognizable home for disenfranchised Americans. Due to his position, charisma and the fact that so many Americans are desperately looking for an answer to their perceived troubles, people will believe him.

Donald Trump has, without question, made it to the White House by painting both our fellow Americans and fellow human beings as what is wrong with America. In doing so, he has effectively made them targets for discrimination, oppression and dehumanization. Furthermore, the nature of his campaign has played a primary role in giving tacit approval for Americans to oppress each other.

Moving Forward

We must acknowledge the reality that Donald Trump has and will continue to encourage acts of injustice. To deny that or mask it with a neutral stance would be ignorance at its worst. Whether we see new discriminatory policies or other citizens who have bought into Trump’s misguided message that bigotry is the right course for America, we must get outraged and intervene. We cannot stand idly by if the rights and humanity of others are in jeopardy.

We also have an obligation to try to understand why so many people voted for Trump. Though the common idea that such a decision was made not because of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry but in spite of them may strain credulity for some of us, we must consider that possibility and the possibility that, even in cases in which an –ism was the primary driver of a Trump vote, that -ism is deeply connected to a system that isn’t working. We can continue to straw man our respective arguments by oversimplifying answers or we, as a unified American society, can try to reach out in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the deep-seated pain and anguish that are currently feeding American anger and resentment.

The task before us is immense, possibly necessitating one of the largest social movements in American history. It is made more difficult by the fact that we have a charismatic individual coming into office who knows how to harness, incite and utilize social anger to his advantage. Still, acknowledging these things means we may have a fighting chance of pushing back against the tide. We know what the problem is: Anger stemming from pain. The solution: Love, compassion and understanding.

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War in the Name of God: Christianity Is No Less Addicted Than Any Other Religion

Tom Block is an author, artist, and activist whose book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, explores the relationships between religion, spirituality and institutional violence.  In this post, Block (who you can follow on Twitter at @tomblock06 and learn more about at www.tomblock.com) summarizes some of the book’s core themes to debunk the notion that Islam is uniquely violent.

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Tom Block

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Gary Gutting (a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame) argued concerning what some call “radical Islamic terrorism:”

Islam has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth.  To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

This Western-centric, racist and arrogant attitude from the spiritually “advanced” Christian religion toward the unreformed and medieval Islamic one is all too typical. As I write this, Christian nations (mostly our own) rain bombs down from drones onto weddings, schools and other secular places and events in Islamic lands.  The difference between our bombs and their bombs, however, is (according to the narrative) massive: we drop our payloads in the name of peace and with a great sadness that they force us to, while they joyfully blow themselves up in evil acts of anarchy and murder.

At least Christian killers value their own lives!

One needn’t dig too deeply into the American story, or psyche, to discover specific examples of our country’s Orwellian “war is peace” paradigm, all tightly supported by the loving vessel of American Christianity.

Christian language and imagery are explicit in the American call to arms.  America’s wars have almost always been – and continue to be – spiritual/religious affairs in which young men and women are called to sacrifice themselves for the Christian God.  As was noted in an article in Newsweek:

In America, God and war have a particular kinship: evoking God in the midst of mass killing is inspirational…Divine sanction has been used to give meaning to the Constitution’s promise of equality, as well as to license genocide…This impulse to blend God and war owes much to the American temperament: Americans have always feared one (today, nine out of ten call themselves believers) and loved the other (the United States has fought in dozens of armed conflicts in the nation’s two-and-a-third centuries).  Not a few old warriors have admitted to thrilling to the words of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

If you’re not convinced that this defines a current American attitude, consider the United States’ response to “Islamic terrorism” (the American existential threat du jour).  “In the weeks after the September [11, 2001] attacks,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges observed, “communities gathered for vigils and worship services.  The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura…The state, and the institutions of state, became for many, the center of worship.”

On the first anniversary of the attacks, seven months before the 2003 incursion into Iraq, President Bush said: “Our cause is even larger than our country.  Ours is the course of human dignity, freedom guided by conscience grounded by peace.  This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.”  As the British newspaper The Guardian reported:

George Bush has claimed he was on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did. And then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’”

Bush’s politics of war were always framed for the public in a religious manner.  As Anglican Priest Jeremy Young noted, for example, Bush suggested in his 2003 State of the Union address “that America is Christ and that its role is to save the world.”  However, it is true that Bush hasn’t been president for nearly a decade, so it might be argued that now, finally, America has moved past the conflation of Jesus’s will and our military incursions.

Would that it were so.  President Obama, winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, has continued the starry-eyed vision of an American Christ of the sword.  Professor Robert H. Nelson, writing for the mainstream PBS website, notes that Obama, too, has infused religious imagery into his speeches.  And Obama has buttressed this faith with bombs.  According to Politifact, by the spring of 2016, Obama had ordered 500 drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen (as opposed to 60 by President Bush); 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2014 alone; and a smattering of others in Syria, Libya, Iraq and other far-off, generally Muslim locales.  The Huffington Post noted that “nearly 90% of people killed in recent drone strikes were not the target,” allowing Obama’s scattershot Christian murders to be assured of killing Muslims, though rarely the “correct” ones.  Far from shying away from these actions, our Christian leader has bragged about it: “There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years,” he puffed in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace in April 2016.

None of that is to say that American Christians are in any way different or worse than contemporary practitioners of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism.  It is simply the case that Christianity is no better, no more evolved, no more peaceful than any of the world’s religions – all of which (even Buddhism) are steeped within a tradition of sacred violence, and are currently involved in wars of choice in the name of God.  (While I am well aware that many will balk at the idea that Buddhism, too, is as bloodthirsty as the other world’s religions – gasp! – Buddhist practitioner Brian Daizen Victoria notes in his book Zen at War that “warfare and killing are described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion” and Buddhists are, in fact, committing violence today.)  All faiths utilize war-like language and imagery to describe matters of the spirit and exhort followers to religious catharsis through violence.  Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer stated in his book, Is Religion Killing Us: “Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of ‘sacred’ texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of those texts.”  Since virtually all major religions have embedded within them violent images of God, people can selectively recall these texts and extract from them divine support for war, creating the foundation for what Nelson-Pallmeyer terms the “violence of God tradition.”

One central reason that contemporary leaders have such a willing audience when representing war as religiously sanctioned – and, in many cases, even a spiritual obligation – is the extensive history of uniting physical war and the spiritual path within the sacred teachings of virtually all creeds.  Though much of the religious language was undoubtedly meant as metaphor, the human mind runs quickly downhill to the literal, leaving reams of imagery and injunctions for leaders to utilize when discussing military campaigns within the secular culture, and influencing the minds of potential warriors.

American politicians, the media and even mainstream entertainers – like those of all other cultures and religions – do everything in their power to play up the similarities between the religious path and war, all for the poorly obscured purpose of exploiting human pawns to protect their own earthly power or to just simply make a buck (e.g., Boeing, General Electric, Northrup Grumman et al.).  Perhaps, to some extent, they might even believe their own words, especially if they themselves have fought in a war and come out more or less whole.  In this case they will be forced to trust in the lie of a mystical war, if only to help justify the horrors they themselves witnessed and perpetrated.

We need only examine the words of a man considered an American hero, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to understand how war language explicitly borrows from the religious and even mystical lexicon.  Here’s how he eulogized a soldier fallen in Afghanistan:

He loved his country, and the values that make us exceptional among nations, and good…Love and honor oblige us.  We are obliged to value our blessings, and to pay our debts to those who sacrificed to secure them for us.  They are blood debts…The loss of every fallen soldier should hurt us lest we ever forget the terrible costs of war, and the sublime love of those who sacrifice everything on our behalf.

Note how the very real horrors of war are euphemistically referred to in the language of mysticism: “sublime love,” “obligation,” “good causes,” “moral purpose, “save the innocent,” “peace” and “sacrifice.”  This presentation persuades the general population to bypass the intent of their religious teachings, concentrating instead on its sometimes-grisly content.

For those who waver, the dead soldier is held out as incontrovertible proof of the necessity and worth of the war.  After all, how could one “force” the soldier to have died in vain, by questioning the worth of his action?  The war becomes worthwhile because someone has died undertaking it, a reversal of the normal assignation of worth, which defines an action’s merit before the risk is actually taken.  In a horrifying example of the “sunk costs” theory, the more people that die for a cause, however mistaken, the more religiously valuable the action, no matter what the true human or economic price really is.  Through the sacrifice of human souls for political ends, war becomes enmeshed with a true God experience.

Perhaps as dangerous as the ongoing conflation of spirituality and war are assertions like those from Gutting, who declares that American Christianity has “moved past” religiously sanctioning state violence.  This blindness allows our country to engage in wars for our victims’ own good – in much the same way that 12th-century Crusaders (a term used by George W. Bush in describing America’s response to the attacks of 9/11/2001) or 15th-century Spanish Inquisitors did.

It’s time for a dose of honesty: Christianity is in no manner more mature or less war-like than Islam or any other religion. To heal the illness of state-sponsored murder, we must first admit that.

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Perspective Should Trump Sensationalism

Prominent Democratic media figures and politicians have long argued that Donald Trump is a uniquely terrifying threat to America’s future.  Back in February, for example, Ezra Klein called Trump “the most dangerous presidential candidate in memory.”  In March, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz claimed that Trump is “the most extreme and vile, misogynistic candidate in modern times.”  And more recently, right before the Indiana primary, President Barack Obama said that Trump “is not somebody who, even within the Republican Party, can be considered as equipped to deal with the problems of this office.”

These claims, however, are missing vital context.  Trump would probably make a really bad president, but far from being a unique disaster, his nomination may have actually been the best-case outcome of this year’s Republican primary.

Many of the things Trump is known for – his overtly racist comments, for example – certainly are, as Jenée Desmond-Harris recently noted in The New York Times, “infuriating and frightening.”  But they’re not anomalies.  Both Republican and Democratic politicians have long played more subtly on racist stereotypes.  Trump’s blatant racism, as Desmond-Harris explains, makes it harder for people to pretend racism doesn’t exist or not to “understand what it represents about the country.”

There is, of course, a very legitimate concern about the costs of such unconcealed racism from a prominent public figure.  Trump “has given people permission to openly trumpet views they may once have kept to themselves — and gives them a place to gather together.”  Violence is a predictable result of these gatherings – especially considering the fact that Trump has at times encouraged it – and we’ve already seen it happening at Trump rallies all over the country.

At the same time, it’s not like the pre-Trump era was free from violent White supremacy, and when racism and other forms of discrimination are easily identifiable, they’re much easier to confront.  Consider, for example, Trump’s despicable proposal to ban Muslims from the country.  Given that American society has persecuted Muslims intensely for the past 15 years and that the mainstream media and numerous politicians – again, in both major parties – have facilitated this persecution, it’s hard to believe we’d be seeing the same outrage about the ban (let alone legislation intended to thwart it) if it had been proposed in more coded language by someone perceived to be more mainstream.  In fact, survey evidence highlights this point; Democratic support for a Muslim ban grows from 25 percent to 45 percent when voters don’t know the ban is Trump’s idea (Republican support is above 70 percent whether voters know it’s Trump’s idea or not).

Marco Rubio’s comment that Trump “says what people wish they could say [but] can’t [because of] consequences, here and around the world” is telling.  The consequences are in the form of popular backlash, and it’s the fear of that backlash, in part, that’s driving Right-wing opposition to the Republican nominee.  Radio and television personality Glenn Beck, for instance, worries “that the GOP is going to be completely racist – whether it’s true or not – because of Donald Trump. You will never have another Republican president ever again.”  Beck is likely wrong about his electoral prediction, unfortunately, but he may be right about Trump exposing the racist, sexist, and xenophobic elements of America that are particularly prevalent in the Republican party.  It’s perfectly rational to fear having those prejudices out in the open, but that exposure could also be what’s necessary to begin to dismantle them.

The other reason a lot of prominent Republicans don’t like Trump is that, as Nate Silver put it back in September of 2015: “There’s an alternate reality in which he decided to run as a Democrat instead — he wouldn’t have to change his policy positions all that much.”  That was certainly the argument of Ted Cruz, who complained in a Super Tuesday speech about, among other things, Trump’s support for “socialized medicine,” Planned Parenthood, “compromise…on Supreme Court nominees,” and neutrality when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

The man Trump calls “Lyin’ Ted” described most of Trump’s positions incorrectly, but there was also an element of truth in what Cruz told his supporters.  Despite Trump’s promise to repeal Obamacare during the primary, he’s also said, to the chagrin of his Republican foes, that he wants to replace it with more universal coverage; he’s even been a supporter of single-payer health care in the past.  Though Trump has argued for defunding Planned Parenthood, he’s also maintained, unlike other Republican candidates, that he has “a lot of respect for some of the things they do.”  It’s hard to know what Trump would do with the Supreme Court – as one legal scholar mused in March, he’s a real “wild card” – but unlike most Republican candidates (John Kasich is another exception), he has floated less insane justices in the past.  On Israel and Palestine, Cruz actually got Trump’s prior statements right, and while Trump recently spoke much more hawkishly about the conflict, that may be in response to Hillary Clinton’s “attempt to cast herself to Trump’s right” on the issue.

It’s hard to know for sure what Trump believes – “his hair has been more permanent than his political positions,” as AEI’s Thomas Miller said last July – but there are actually a few domains in which Trump might have better policy positions than Clinton.  Trump and Clinton both say they oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, but while Trump’s opposition isn’t quite for the right reasons, it’s fairly credible; Clinton’s, on the other hand, isn’t.  While Clinton and her supporters make arguments more extreme than Antonin Scalia’s in defense of her big money donors and speeches at Goldman Sachs, Trump is telling the truth about the influence of money in politics (which he openly admits that he has benefited from as a donor and, like Clinton, pledges to reform).  Trump says he wants a much bigger investment in infrastructure than does Clinton, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that, in general, Clinton has a bigger “appetite for military engagement abroad” than Trump does.

In other areas, Trump’s positions may be less extreme than his primary posturing suggests.  For example, he now says he is open to raising the minimum wage, he initially frowned upon North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, and there are indications that he may walk back his plans to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and deport millions of immigrants.  To be clear, he hasn’t given a number on the minimum wage, he decided North Carolina’s law was a state decision in response to pressure from Republicans, and he has not yet pulled support for a border wall or deportations.  His positions here are completely unacceptable, as are his tax plan and his statements on guns, torture, and much else.  Furthermore, as mentioned above, it’s hard to know whether he would adhere to anything he’s said, and it would be a serious understatement to say that his advisers inspire little confidence.  But it’s also important to remember that it’s hard to know what Clinton truly believes, that there is cause for concern about who her staff would be, and that she was absent from the fight for a higher minimum wage, opposed to marriage equality, and supportive of border barriers and deportations until relatively recently, when the right positions (pro-large minimum wage increase, pro-marriage equality, anti-border barrier, and anti-deportations) became politically advantageous for a Democratic Party politician.

None of that is to say that anyone who believes in social justice should consider voting for Trump; please don’t.  I strongly disagree with the notion that he’d be the lesser-of-evils candidate if Clinton is the Democratic nominee.  (If that happens, I encourage Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for a third-party candidate.)

I would, however, urge everyone, both here and around the world, to treat Trump less like a heretofore unseen danger.  It’s not a bad thing that Trump “is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation” – there are very good reasons for those suspicions, and we can’t fix our problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  And it’s also not a bad thing that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – who Dylan Matthews recently called a “doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy” – has wondered whether his “conservative principles will be championed” by the Republican nominee for president.  As even pro-Clinton journalist Jonathan Chait has pointed out, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a Cruz presidency.”

That certainly doesn’t mean fears of Trump are unfounded.  But let’s also make sure we give his candidacy the appropriate context.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

Voting for Bernie Sanders, Learning from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Several months ago, Black Lives Matter activists targeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with protests.  Many of my fellow Sanders supporters thought these protests unfair, in large part, as I explained at the time, because Sanders “has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.”  Sanders backers noted that his “passion for economic justice…is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.”  Since Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates “have almost-uniformly worse records and stances…on issues affecting Black Americans,” Sanders supporters didn’t understand “why Black Lives Matter [was] applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.”

These very same arguments are now surfacing again in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who recently took Sanders to task for failing to support reparations (restitution for the centuries of plunder America has visited upon Black communities).  These arguments are still, to a large extent, fair to make.  It is also fair to point out some notable problems with Coates’ characterization of Sanders and his positions:

  • Sanders is not the self-proclaimed “radical” Coates thinks he is – Sanders is making fun of that label in the quote Coates pulls and frequently says on the campaign trail that his ideas, which are wildly popular, are not radical;
  • Sanders is not, as Coates asserts, “posing as a pragmatist” – he most definitely is a pragmatist (just a more power-balancing one than we usually see in American politics);
  • Sanders is in fact “the candidate of…unification” in the Democratic primary, despite Coates’ claim to the contrary; and
  • As Daniel Denvir and Kevin Drum have noted, Sanders’ responses to the questions he’s been asked about reparations – that he supports “making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino” – don’t sound all that different from a reparations proposal Coates himself has previously entertained.

At the same time, the thrust of Coates’ articles is entirely legitimate and extremely important, as were the Black Lives Matter protests.  “For one thing,” as I mentioned previously with regard to the protests, “while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.”  Coates, like the protesters before him, wants Sanders to “promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and [he has] every right to demand that [Sanders] do so.”  For another, Coates is justified in focusing on Sanders “precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond” productively to Coates’ concerns.

Coates hammers this message home in an excellent follow-up piece:

Many Sanders supporters…correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state.  I agree with them and have said so at length.  Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral ‘anti-crime’ bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her invocation of the super-predator myth.  A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory.  (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.)  That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name…

[Similarly, t]hat a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton embraces mainstream liberal policy is unsurprising. Clinton has no interest in expanding the Overton window. She simply hopes to slide through it.

But I thought #FeelTheBern meant something more than this. I thought that Bernie Sanders, the candidate of single-payer health insurance, of the dissolution of big banks, of free higher education, was interested both in being elected and in advancing the debate beyond his own candidacy. I thought the importance of Sanders’s call for free tuition at public universities lay not just in telling citizens that which is actually workable, but in showing them that which we must struggle to make workable. I thought Sanders’s campaign might remind Americans that what is imminently doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things, and while actualizing the former we can’t lose sight of the latter.

Coates is verbalizing here what we deserve from every politician, but especially from the candidate we are pledging to support: a willingness to advocate for what’s right, even when it’s not particularly popular.  And whether Bernie Sanders’ dismissal of reparations is semantic or substantive, whether it’s driven by true opposition or by political pragmatism, it’s wrong.  His campaign’s lack of engagement with Coates thus far, who has reached out to the Sanders team several times, is particularly disappointing.

That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote for Sanders (and, to be clear, there is no possible interpretation of Coates’ argument that should lead anyone to vote for Clinton).  Many people who support reparations have endorsed and are campaigning for him, and there is strong support for Sanders even in the Coates household (see video clips below)!

Coates discusses Sanders and reparations with Chris Hayes.

Michael Render (also known as Killer Mike), who is “pro Reparations for any people used and abused like Blacks have been here and other places,” explains why “Bernie Sanders is our guy.”

But no politician, no matter who he or she is running against, should ever be immune from critique.  And in Sanders’ case, demands for justice from oppressed people are exactly what his political revolution is supposed to be about.  It’s thus incumbent upon Sanders supporters to stop hassling Coates for asking tough questions and, instead, to start thanking him for holding all of us – including someone who may very well be the next President of the United States – accountable for being the very best we can be.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion, US Political System

Donald Trump is A Problem, Not The Problem

Last September, Frank Rich wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled “The Importance of Donald Trump: Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.”

How so?  Rich argued that Trump has “ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.”

Well, that cat left the bag long ago, at least when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry.  As 2015’s last GOP presidential debate made clear, there isn’t a single Republican candidate willing to declare that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslim non-citizens from entering the country is bigoted and unconscionable.  Instead, Trump’s challengers fell all over themselves to court the 59% (or more) of Republican voters who support such a plan.  Even Lindsey Graham (who has since dropped out of the race) and Jeb Bush, who got credit in some corners for challenging Trump’s proposal, could only muster the courage to question whether it would undermine our ability to build coalitions and stay safe.  They left the core problem with it – that it is completely immoral – unmentioned, and they insisted that loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee was more important than the rights of the world’s Muslim population.

So is Rich right?  Does Trump expose the despicable views of his fellow candidates, thus enabling us to confront and discredit them?  Or, as Rachel Maddow asked several weeks ago (in the same vein as these comments from Steve Benen), does Trump shift the Overton window of acceptable political discourse?  In other words, does Trump’s rhetoric normalize similarly repugnant proposals from Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and just about every other Republican presidential candidate by making them seem tame in comparison?

I don’t profess to know the answer to that question.  But either way, those of us who truly believe in freedom and justice need to stop treating Donald Trump like some sort of anomaly.  It’s also incumbent upon us to stop acting like despicable, racist, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy ideas are confined to the Republican party; though unethical rhetoric and proposals rear their ugly heads among prominent Republicans more often and more overtly than they do in many other quarters, the mainstream media, popular “liberals,” and high-ranking Democrats are complicit in the persecution of Muslim communities as well.

Consider CNN, the news network that hosted the aforementioned Republican debate.  In October of 2014, for example, network anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota invited renowned scholar Reza Aslan to an interview (shown below) that began with an absurd question: “Does Islam promote violence?”  Aslan’s responses throughout the rather hostile and offensive set of interview questions, in which he was interrupted by both Lemon and Camerota several times, were well-reasoned and, for the vast majority of the interview, remarkably calm.  He noted that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam – this human rights violation is common in many countries in and around Central Africa, regardless of their majority religion, and is not an issue in majority-Muslim countries outside that region.  He explained that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”  He pointed out that women in majority-Muslim Turkey have had more political success than women in the United States, and, finally, getting a little fed up with Lemon and Camerota’s ignorance, explained more forcefully that the use of the phrase “‘Muslim countries,’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same…is, frankly…stupid.” (Aslan actually apologized for using the word “stupid” after the interview – even though it’s a fairly accurate description of the generalization he was describing – presumably because he wanted to make sure Camerota knew that he wasn’t directing the comment at her intelligence).

CNN’s response to this exchange, rather than to reflect on what their anchors might have done wrong, was to put Lemon and Camerota back on air to defend their interview in a discussion with Chris Cuomo (shown below).  In his closing remarks, Cuomo said that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”

If you want a more recent example, check out the next interview below, this one between CNN anchors John Vouse and Isha Sesay and Yasser Louati, head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.  Just like Lemon and Camerota, Vause and Sesay started with a bigoted and offensive premise – all Muslims should take responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris – and continued to ask the same inappropriate question over and over again after Louati politely debunked it.

I wish these videos were outliers, but they aren’t; CNN’s anchors, as well as many members of ostensibly “liberal” media and policy circles, disparage Muslims all the time.  And CNN doesn’t condone this behavior because of an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression for its staff; less than a week after the interview with Louati, CNN suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for issuing the following tweet:

In some ways, CNN is more at fault than the Republican candidates for spreading Islamophobia.  When a major television station that many people believe to be broadcasting “objective news” censors tolerant opinions from some of its journalists while giving other journalists free reign to bash the Muslim community, it mainstreams ignorant, prejudiced views far more successfully than Donald Trump ever could.

That’s a large part of why Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates also deserve rebuke (as does George W. Bush, despite the praise he has received from Hillary Clinton).  To their credit, they are all careful to draw a clear distinction between Islam the religion and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals who profess to believe in it.  Obama, at the State of the Union this week, said that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”  Yet his and others’ words often lend cover to anti-Muslim animus by (intentionally or not) erroneously implying that “terrorism” and “Islam” are linked.  At the last Democratic presidential debate of 2015, for example, Clinton put the burden on Muslim-Americans to “stop radicalization,” and even Bernie Sanders, who is by far the best major presidential candidate on this issue, insisted that we are in a “war for the soul of Islam.”  Unless the candidates also think that the terror the Israeli government visits in the Middle East or that the fear the Ku Klux Klan still inspires in the United States represent wars for the souls of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, there is no excuse for this kind of language.

The Democrats’ foreign policy positions also contribute to the problem; their support for aggressive war in response to perceived threats of terror normalizes an “us versus them” and “ends justify the means” mentality used to oppress Muslims in various countries around the world.  Clinton is by far the worst perpetrator among the candidates in this regard – her foreign policy record and rhetoric are worse than those of many Republicans.  As but one example, she presided over massive increases in weapons deals to the Saudi Arabian government, one of the most repressive regimes in the world that just began 2016 by beheading 47 people, while they donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation.  But Obama is very far from blameless.  Phrases like “our enemies” and “have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed” from the State of the Union don’t help, nor do Obama-ordered drone strikes that mostly murder innocent civilians.  And even Sanders has lent cover to the Saudis.  When the supposed “liberals” take these positions, it’s little wonder that Republican debate moderator Hugh Hewitt can suggest that it is a virtue to “order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands” without anyone batting an eyelid.

It’s also little wonder that anti-Muslim sentiment runs alarmingly high among Democratic voters; between 15% and 25% (depending on the poll) support Trump’s proposal.  Even scarier, that number could be as high as 45% when Democrats don’t know that the proposal is Trump’s, suggesting that there’s actually much more of a bipartisan consensus in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims than many party loyalists would like to believe.  Constant threats, intimidation, and violent attacks against Muslim citizens aren’t a Trump problem; they’re an American problem.

So while it is perfectly appropriate to condemn Donald Trump and the Republicans for their bigotry, we must not treat them as anomalies.  We must also confront the media, the Democratic candidates, and all of our friends who, whether purposefully or not, and whether explicitly or not, spread the lie that Islam is uniquely violent.  We must go beyond pointing out that prejudice and aggressive war make us less safe, that far more “acts of terror” are carried out by Right-Wing extremists than by those professing to be Muslims, and that state-sanctioned violence by Western nations is responsible for far, far more deaths of innocent civilians than ISIS ever will be.  We must, first and foremost, stand in support of Muslims worldwide by denouncing profiling, implicit forms of discrimination, demonization of the “other,” and aggressive calls for war – no matter who they’re coming from – as morally wrong.

Note (7/6/16): This post used to contain audio from the Rachel Maddow show on the Overton window, but it is no longer available.  The reference to it has been replaced with a reference to a piece on Maddow’s blog.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Race and Religion

What’s the Best Way to Deal with the Ku Klux Klan?

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague Mike Mitchell, I recently listened to a fascinating podcast about Daryl Davis, an award-winning musician who is best known for his role in bringing down the Maryland chapter of the Ku Klux Klan – through his friendship with Klan members.  In the podcast, Davis describes how, while playing country music in a bar in 1983, a White man approached him and expressed that he had never heard a Black man “play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.”  The two men struck up a conversation, during which Davis discovered that his counterpart was a card-carrying member of the KKK.

Amazingly, Davis befriended the man.  Nearly a decade later, he decided that he wanted to meet more KKK members.  When experiencing overt forms of personal racism throughout his life, Davis had always wondered how people could harbor animosity towards him – without knowing him – just because of the color of his skin, and he believed that talking to members of the KKK could help him understand this phenomenon.

Davis had his secretary set up an interview with Roger Kelly, the head of the Maryland KKK at the time, and, after a tense initial encounter, Davis became friends with Kelly as well.  In the years thereafter, he developed relationships with several other high-ranking KKK members.  During each of his encounters with them, Davis listened closely to what they had to say.  He would challenge the Klansmen – when Kelly referenced the Bible during his initial interview, for example, Davis would pull out a copy of the Bible and ask Kelly to show him the relevant passages that ostensibly supported racism – but he remained polite and friendly while doing so.  Over time, as the Klansmen got to know Davis, many of their prejudiced (and factually incorrect) beliefs about Black people began to erode.  Eventually, some of the highest-ranking members in Maryland left the Klan and the organization itself dissolved.

I have deep respect and awe for what Davis did and how much he accomplished.

I would characterize Davis’s approach – politely disagreeing with Klansmen in order to break down stereotypes over time – as the “long game.”  It’s about changing people’s minds and attitudes in the long run, and, if successful, pays huge dividends.

At the same time, the long game is remarkably time-intensive.  It’s also very risky – there’s no guarantee of eventual success, and in the short run, the Klan has relatively free reign to terrify and oppress a whole lot of people.

An alternative approach – the “short game” – prioritizes protecting the oppressed over changing the mindsets of oppressors.  The short game is about checking people in power.  That often means stating, in very clear terms, that certain viewpoints are unacceptable, and that there will be consequences for people who espouse them in public.

There’s obviously some tension here between the short game and the long game, between laying down speech and policy that protect the oppressed right now and keeping the oppressors listening so they might in fact eventually change.  I generally play the short game with a few elements of the long game incorporated – I love to engage with those with racist opinions, and I am happy to listen to what they have to say, but I differ from Davis in that I won’t say “we disagree” when I’m talking about a Klan member; instead, I’ll say that the Klan member is ethically and factually wrong, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to hold his intimidation rallies (I’ve long made a similar case when it comes to LGBT issues, too).

I like to think that there is an appropriate balance to be struck between both tactics, but I struggle a lot with it.  I want Klansmen to know (and society to acknowledge) that we don’t have mere differences of opinion – the Klan is definitively wrong about race and their incorrect and unethical viewpoint harms large numbers of people.  At the same time, telling people their views are wrong and bigoted and preventing them from expressing them publicly is likely to cause them to tune out and feel more resentment, no matter how much I insist (genuinely) that I am interested in talking to them and hearing what they have to say.

There’s definitely a difference between calling a viewpoint bigoted and calling a person bigoted, but part of me thinks there’s a lot of value in tying viewpoints to identity, especially in terms of the social pressure that can bring for people to curtail open forms of oppression.  And I’m generally willing to accept some tuning out from oppressors, if it means that society will stop giving them a microphone and label racism and bigotry what it is.  I tend to think that helping a few people change is less important than making sure they don’t harm anyone, and that, absent an amplifier for oppressors’ views, reason and compassion will become much more prevalent in the next generation.

All of that said, I recognize that my White privilege allows me to advocate for this approach with little fear of repercussion, whereas Davis would very likely be labeled an Angry Black person if he were to adopt my strategy today (and if he tried it with Roger Kelly, he almost certainly would have ended up dead).  I question whether my preferred tactic for confronting racism is most appropriate in large part because it’s available to me only as part of a menu of relatively consequence-free options that may be unavailable to my Black friends.

In short, I would be very interested in hearing Davis’ and others’ thoughts on my tendencies in this space, and on whether or not there’s a better way to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of short-run protection for the oppressed and long-run change in the oppressors.

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Filed under Philosophy, Race and Religion

Black Lives Matter Movement Gives Bernie Sanders’ Racial Justice Agenda the Push It Needs

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has unveiled a comprehensive racial justice agenda aimed at “addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic.”  The agenda includes, among other policy proposals, a call for police demilitarization, community policing, aggressive prosecution of police officers who break the law, the re-enfranchisement of those with criminal records, banning for-profit prisons, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, youth employment programs, free college, and pay equity legislation.  Sanders also has an excellent record on racial justice issues, much better than any other candidate running for president.

In the 1960s, while a young Hillary Clinton was supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater – an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation – in his quest for the presidency, Sanders was leading protests against police brutality and segregated schools and housing, marching in the March on Washington, and working as an officer for the Congress of Racial Equality.  His voting record while in Congress, first as a Representative (1990-2005) and then as a Senator (2006-Present), has earned him consistently excellent marks from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The NAACP has given Sanders 100% ratings on its Legislative Report Cards for the entirety of his time in the Senate and near-100% or 100% ratings during his time in the House for, among many other things, voting in favor of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, anti-discrimination laws, and hate crimes legislation and against the death penalty, stringent sentencing guidelines for those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the welfare reform law of 1996 (the only blip on his record is gun control, an issue on which he admittedly has a mixed voting history, though his stance on the issue is much more sensible than many of his detractors contend).

A 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago in the 1960s (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old Bernie Sanders helps organize a protest of housing segregation in properties owned by the University of Chicago (via https://berniesanders.com/timeline/1960s/).

Because of that excellent record, a number of Sanders supporters have been upset by Black Lives Matter protests targeting Sanders.  Sanders supporters’ frustration seems to be borne out of two observations.  First, Sanders’ passion for economic justice – raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, breaking up the big banks, making our tax system more progressive, advancing single-payer health care – is intimately connected with a passion for racial justice.  Income, wealth, and opportunity inequality in this country disproportionately affect communities of color, and a commitment to addressing them is in many ways in and of itself indicative of a view that Black Lives Matter.

Second, and relatedly, Sanders has received a disproportionate amount of attention from protesters relative to Hillary Clinton and Republican candidates, who have almost-uniformly worse records and stances (the one exception may be Clinton on gun control) on issues affecting Black Americans (in fact, Sanders has what is by far the best record of any prominent candidate on civil and human rights across the board; he has long been a strong ally on issues affecting Latinos, the LGBT community, women, and poor people around the world).  Sanders supporters wonder why Black Lives Matter is applying pressure primarily to the candidate most sympathetic to their cause.

I myself am a strong Sanders supporter and find these observations relevant, but they miss a few crucial points.  For one thing, while racial and economic justice are intimately connected, they are not the exact same thing.  As Jennifer Roesch puts it in an excellent article for Jacobin:

It is certainly true that the struggle against racism today must entail a radical program of economic demands…It is also clear that such reforms would benefit the entire working class and reduce income inequality. But such demands cannot be delinked from, or stand in the place of, explicit demands around racism…

Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform. Jobs programs would have to include affirmative-action policies and a prohibition on discrimination on the basis of a criminal record; fights to expand funding for public hospitals, schools, and services would have to recognize the specific needs of black communities hollowed out by decades of deindustrialization and neglect; and housing policies would need to explicitly target practices such as redlining and predatory lending.

The crisis faced by black America is also not solely economic — it is also a social crisis. Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities…

This fight will require forging a unity not by collapsing the fight against racism into a broader class fight for economic equality, but by highlighting the central role of racism and making it a concern of the entire working class.

Black Lives Matter protesters wanted Sanders’ campaign to stop treating racial justice as an inevitable byproduct of economic justice.  They wanted Sanders to instead promote a specific racial justice platform complementary to his economic justice agenda, and they had every right to demand that he do so.

While I also hope to see Black Lives Matter turn the pressure up on Clinton and the Republican candidates in the weeks and months to come, criticisms of their tactics thus far – targeting Sanders and “taking over” some of his speaking events – are in my view off base.  Black Lives Matter is the type of grassroots people’s movement that Sanders prides himself on representing; he was a good first target precisely because he’s a natural ally and the candidate most likely to respond to such a protest with a policy agenda addressing its legitimate concerns.  Writing about the first protest at Netroots Nation, Joe Dinkin captured it best:

Here’s one stab at a better response [Sanders] could have given [to the Black Lives Matter protesters]: “We need a democratic revolution, and you are part of it. I admire your courage in speaking up. I learned of the troubling death of a black woman in police custody, and, yes, I will say her name: Sandra Bland. I will say her name because black lives matter. I admit I don’t have all the answers. But your fight is my fight. For dignity and equality for all. I need you to fight with me and help me learn. Together we can change both politics and culture and ensure that black lives matter…”

This constituency is demanding to have the issues of structural racism and police violence taken up within the political system…They’re forcing Sanders and other candidates to respond on an issue that it seems like they would have preferred to avoid. If Sanders responds by joining in their fight, they’ve pushed the Movement for Black Lives into the presidential debate and into the mainstream of [American] progressive politics—from which they currently and justifiably feel left out.

This is fair game, and an approach that fans of Bernie Sanders should understand…For people who simply wanted to hear the candidates answer questions and present their stump speeches, there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to share positions on the issues—at least on the ones they’re not ducking…The Black Lives Matter agenda is not the only issue of moral urgency, but it most certainly is one of them. All progressives should applaud activists who took the opportunity to push it forward.

It is quite possible that, were it not for the Black Lives Matter movement, Sanders’ racial justice agenda would not yet exist.  That it contains excerpts like the following is telling:

“At the federal level we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country. With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.”

So we have two groups to thank for Sanders’ ambitious racial justice platform. Sanders and his campaign staff absolutely deserve credit for unleashing it and for being allies in the movement. Black Lives Matter deserves the bulk of the credit, however, not just for pushing the conversation on this issue forward, but also for reminding us that even the best presidential candidate won’t be able to enact the change we need without a constructively critical social movement behind him.

Update (8/11/15): The original version of this post included the following paragraph as part of the block quote from Roesch’s article:

As the historical record shows, we cannot assume that reductions in the overall level of inequality will trickle down to African Americans. In the golden age of postwar American capitalism, an era to which many left-liberals yearn to return, economic inequality was much lower than it is today, but there was no corresponding decrease in racial inequality. If anything, it was even starker — in 1959, more than half of black families lived in poverty, while 15 percent of white families did.

While it is certainly true that a strong economy on its own has never come close to eliminating racial disparities in economic outcomes, the wording in this paragraph implies that outcomes for Black Americans did not improve during “the golden age of postwar American capitalism,” an implication which is incorrect (big thanks to Dean Baker for pointing out this issue).  In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that a strong economy is especially important for Black workers.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion

Money and Power Matter. Family Structure, Not So Much.

50 years ago, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. The central argument in what has come to be called the Moynihan Report was that “The Breakdown of the Negro Family Has Led to a Startling Increase in Welfare Dependency,” and that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

The Moynihan Report, published in March of 1965.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof thinks “Liberals Blew It” by excoriating this report. His conclusion, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the document’s critiques. The Moynihan Report’s faults lie not with its assertion that family stability is desirable, nor with its documentation of an increase in single-parent households, but with its insistence that family structure and Black “pathology” are primary drivers of poverty and inequality. This privilege-defending and inaccurate cultural narrative, however it was intended, implies that poor people of color are to blame for the effects of institutional racism and classism and diverts attention away from the real causes of inequity.

Those who denounced the Moynihan Report for that reason didn’t “blow it;” in fact, they presciently predicted how the report would be used to justify the false claim that “lifestyle issues” are the root cause of poverty. The real mistake is made not by people who recognize that connecting all types of families to money, basic necessities, and power is the best way to help them overcome hardship, but by those who continue to lend credence to the idea that the decline of traditional families has drastic consequences.

The lone piece of evidence Kristof cites in support of his claim that single-parent households lead to poor outcomes for low-income children is “an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard” in the March issue of EducationNext. While Kristof correctly notes that McLanahan and Jencks suggest that “growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent,” he fails to discuss the broader context that calls his thesis into question.

First, the review McLanahan and Jencks cite (a review published by McLanahan and two colleagues in 2013, though the fact that McLanahan authored it is not mentioned in her and Jencks’s essay) found smaller associations or no relationship between family structure and other outcomes for children. As McLanahan and Jencks note about the review’s other findings regarding education, for example:

The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores…The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect.

Second, McLanahan et al themselves acknowledge that the relationships they do find may not be causal; the researchers write that “family disruption is not a random event…[T]he characteristics that cause father absence are likely to affect child well-being through other pathways.” Shawn Fremstad and Melissa Boteach explain in a comprehensive report published in January that while other studies that look at this issue find similar associations, most researchers are much more wary than McLanahan and colleagues of suggesting a causal link between family structure and indicators of children’s well-being.*

In fact, Kristof’s suggestion that the rise in single-parent households is a major driver of poverty and inequality is incompatible with some key details. For instance, while poverty levels in the United States remain far too high, they have fallen significantly over the past 50 years, in large part due to the safety net. If family structure were, as Moynihan contended, “the principal source of most of the aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that did not establish, but now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation” (a contention that highlights the absurdity of Kristof’s argument that “liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair”), this reduction in poverty would not have happened, as the number of “nontraditional” families has exploded during this time period.

Third, and most significantly, little research explores more plausible causal explanations for the relationship between economic and social disadvantage and family structure. It may very well be the case that the hardships associated with poverty make traditional families less likely, or that many of the factors that contribute to poverty and inequality also disrupt family stability.

Survey data suggests that these alternate interpretations are more likely to be accurate than Kristof’s; if nontraditional households were a cause rather than an effect or merely a correlate of disadvantage, we’d expect more support for traditional family structure among more advantaged individuals. The reverse is true, however; a study of survey results in 2012 noted that, “relative to higher income respondents, low-income respondents held more traditional values toward marriage, had similar romantic standards for marriage, and experienced similar skills-based relationship problems.” That study is consistent with Fremstad and Boteach’s summary of earlier research: “If anything, working-class people seem to value the cultural and religious aspects of marriage as much or more highly than more-educated adults.”

Relatedly, as Jared Bernstein pointed out last year, “policy interventions to encourage marriage have been shown to be quite ineffective” (and costly; as Bernstein also noted, “[t]wo pilot programs introduced in the George W. Bush years cost $10,000 per couple”). Wanting children to grow up in stable households is of course a laudable goal, but the evidence indicates that achieving household stability is not about culture, preferences, or a particular type of family structure. Instead, it is about a broad social justice agenda that addresses economic and social barriers to equality.

On some level, Kristof recognizes that direct means of addressing economic and social disadvantage should be the focus of anyone interested in “helping American kids.” He correctly decries how our racially- and economically-biased system of mass incarceration has torn families apart, and he also appropriately advocates that we “support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families.” Criminal justice reforms, safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Medicaid, and pretax income-boosting policies like the minimum wage and elements of the full employment agenda will likely promote family stability, and, more importantly, they are a sampling of some of the best methods we have to reduce poverty and inequality directly. To the extent that Kristof is advocating for this set of ideas, he is absolutely right to do so.

But the general thrust of Kristof’s piece, like the narrative in the Moynihan Report before it, undermines the fights for racial and class equality. In the future, the report’s defenders would do better to stop castigating the activists who disagree with them and start listening to and reflecting on advocates’ legitimate concerns.

*Fremstad and Boteach also note that “McClanahan’s review and much of the existing research do not clearly distinguish between the effect of family structure per se and the effect of family instability,” a clarification consistent with Kristof’s correct observation that children raised by loving gay parents do very well.

Note: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on March 20.

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How much is a (black) life worth?

I avoided writing about these issues of police brutality against black folk for a long time, because I was afraid that once I did, the chronic depression that lies latent within the black cultural consciousness would rear its ugly head — and it did. The names and “heartbreaking cases” seem endless, and posterity treats them as hashtags: #JusticeForTrayvon #MikeBrown #TamirRice, #EricGarner #ICantBreathe #Ferguson #Blacklivesmatter #Crimingwhilewhite #DariusLiddell — Because it’s only a matter of time until it happens to me or someone close to me, why should I be exempt? I take walks at night in middle-class neighborhoods — isn’t that precisely the crime Trayvon committed? I played around with toy guns when I was a kid, making shooting noises at people [1] — isn’t that what Tamir was doing?

What made Tamir and Trayvon, two unarmed human children, so unchildlike and so inhumane that a fully grown and armed police officer decided to shoot them down?

***

On the day of his death, Tamir Rice’s actions were not very remarkable or even rare: he was just another kid playing with a toy gun, whether on the lawn of his home or in the local park. According to the 911 caller, the gun was “probably fake but he’s pointing it at everybody”. Also, it was mentioned that he was “probably a juvenile”.

The dispatcher repeatedly asked (after the caller tried to evade the question) whether Tamir was black or white. Why did this matter at all? (For identification purposes perhaps, but how likely was it that the race would be needed in a case like this?). You can hear the entire call here.

The outcome of the Tamir Rice case literally leaves me speechless: Police shot him within two seconds of arriving on the scene; questions were not asked nor negotiations attempted. The abdominal wound proved fatal, and when his sister arrived at the scene to see what happened, she was tackled, handcuffed and shoved into the back of the police car. The full video is here. Tamir’s wounds were given no aid (afterwards of which it was obvious his gun was fake) and the ambulance took ~10 minutes to arrive — could this issue have been handled more poorly?

I wonder if the kid was white, would he still be alive or would anyone even have called the cops? Or what if it had been a little white girl toting a toy gun — would anyone have even blinked an eye? Some probably would have chuckled and smiled, even! But one thing is for sure, if the little innocent kid was white — because we all know Tamir Rice was innocent — there would be a lot more national outrage — about gun laws/control, about trigger-happy cops killing random people, and more generally, about America’s inevitable ascendency towards the militarization of the police.

But what about Tamir? Where is the outrage for him? His death was not an accident; no apologies were made. The City of Cleveland even went so far as to blame Rice and his family for his death.

You can’t make this stuff up. Little white girls from middle-class families are kidnapped and CNN follows them for days, aka The Missing White Woman Syndrome. Trayvon was 17, and the courts were able to convince themselves that he was on the verge of beating an armed grown man to death. Tamir was 12. How young is too young? When do boys become men?

***

The Trayvon ruling set an ugly precedent: an armed cop or “neighborhood watch guy” has a scuffle with an unarmed teen at night, kills the kid, yet is ultimately proclaimed not guilty because it was “self-defense”.

The Mike Brown ruling set an even uglier precedent: a cop can kill an unarmed teen in broad daylight with multiple (albeit conflicting) eyewitnesses present, and the case is deemed not even worthy of a trial.

Then along comes Eric Garner, who is blamed for his death because he resisted arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Several parties even went so far as to argue that Garner’s plethora of physical conditions (asthma, heart condition, obesity) means that he would have died anyway — in other words, if Garner didn’t have so many health problems to begin with, he would have survived the altercation. (Although the coroner’s report confirmed that Garner’s death was a homicide by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”)

***

How, really, is Garner’s case different from a public lynching? There were New Yorkers walking by as Garner died; some must have stopped to watch. Oscar Grant was shot in the back face down in a BART car. Face down.  He was no longer a threat to anyone, he was fully subdued — he could have simply been taken into custody. Why wasn’t he?

What is so frightening is that if a case like Garner’s and Grant’s can be explained away, what does it take for a police officer to be convicted for an obviously avoidable murder — and get a comparable sentence as would be accorded a civilian? (Arguably, police officers should actually get heavier sentences, to dissuade them from abusing their enormous power over civilians — power under the law and in the street — because they should be held to stricter standards than civilians, not more loose ones.) [2]

The power that is afforded police officers to kill with impunity is astonishing. Sure, even if you believe that most cops are good — even if they really are all good — the law would still allow cases like this to avoid a fair and thorough trial or have a trial wherein the officer is allowed to explain how his “split-second decisions” are totally justified in hindsight. Gail Sullivan says it best:

“But it’s not what’s on a video that matters so much under the law. Nor is it even whether the officer did or did not harbor racial prejudice. It’s what was going through the mind of the cop in the few seconds when he chose to use force that counts and whether his decision was “reasonable” under the circumstances at that time, not with the benefit of hindsight.

And “reasonable” is defined not by what the general public may think but what cops in a similar situation would think.

That’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has said. And that’s among the reasons it’s so hard to bring charges against cops when they use force — even lethal force.

All this gives police considerable leeway and if they testify before the grand jury, as Pantaleo did in this case, considerable potential sway since they have the opportunity to describe why what they did seemed necessary.”

Bottom line, if an officer happens to kill you, for whatever reason — he’ll be allowed to testify on his own behalf about exactly what his reasons were for acting in the situation that he did. He’ll be offered almost total leeway of subjectivity, simply because he is a police officer and for no other reason. [3]

***

Some say of Garner: “If he had just complied, he would not have died”.   This is a ridiculous argument because it assumes that no matter the charges police bring against you, you should never resist arrest under any circumstances. The brute facts are that cops don’t need proof of the charges when they arrest you — proof is what the verdict of the trial is supposed to ascertain. The police could have nothing more than hearsay, and you simply have to comply because they are wearing a uniform paid for by your taxes. How much power are we willing to give to a uniform?

Never resist arrest — because you might die, and even if the cops did get punished (which they probably won’t, at least not in any sense that a civilian would find commensurate for the crime), you would still be dead — so it’s not worth it in either case. Don’t sacrifice yourself for the petty pride of your conscience; subordinate yourself to the whims of the state (or whatever persons the state has designated worthy of wearing their uniform).

To make resisting arrest a crime lays the groundwork for a police state.

***

Honestly, all these suggestions about how to avoid getting killed by the cops seem eerily similar to how we advise women on how not to get raped by men. “If only you hadn’t resisted arrest (or said yes/no at the proper time with enough assurance); dressed in sagging pants with a hoodie (or in that skanky way at that frat party last night), talked with the utmost respect and deference towards the officer (or turned down his offer for just one more drink or bong hit), if only you knew how to read the minds of your police officers (and those of random power-hungry men) and could anticipate their next move at any and all times, then you wouldn’t have been raped/killed.” Sound familiar?

That’s because it’s an old story. The oppressed has to know the whims and peculiarities of the oppressor. The people and parties at the bottom or middle of the hierarchy have to learn the tastes of the ruling class in order to join it. You have to fake it ‘til you make it, essentially. For historical reasons, women have had to know men at a much deeper and more holistic level than vice versa. (Arguably, men have had to do the same but their motives were much different). I have to become acquainted with corporate culture to succeed in it, but no white person has to take black or Hispanic culture seriously in America — simply because we are not the dominant culture. To put it in crude, postmodern terms, I have to know ‘stuff white people like’ at a much subtler and deeper level than whites have to know ‘stuff black people like’. The bourgeois decides taste; there is only one real and true way to be sophisticated, according to the dominant culture, of which the first step is to articulate with proper grammar and structure (i.e. don’t talk like your black great grand-parents – you ain’t gone get no job like that). Being educated is nothing more than wearing the outer markers (dress, conversation, goals, etc) of the currently educated class.

***

But, let’s be honest, regardless of how you feel about any of these generic cases of “white cop kills black male (female cases abound — 10+ cases to get you started: here & here — but simply get way less media attention), you have to acknowledge that the outcome in all of them seems patently ABSURD when juxtaposed with the outcome of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Here are the highlights: James Holmes walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and killed 12 people and injured ~70 others. Everyone knew he was the killer. He was arrested without resisting and was taken to a detention center to undergo several psychiatric evaluations, while his lawyers continue to make “diminished capacity” pleas on his behalf.

But in the other cases we discuss, each black person was killed because they were perceived or suspected threats.  Holmes had already proved he was a threat by killing a dozen people and injuring many others… The evidence against Holmes was overwhelmingly clear, and yet his life was deliberately preserved! Excessive care was taken to ensure that Holmes was not hurt in any way, even after he had already killed a dozen people!

This is the pure, pure essence of white privilege. The treatment of Holmes versus any of our other cases cannot be justified under any circumstances.

***

In our time, it’s fashionable to disdain rage. In social dynamics, anger is perceived as a sign of weakness, a sign that you feel you’ve lost power, “lost control”. Anger is usually feared if it comes from the dominant party in the altercation, but pitied, ridiculed, or even ignored if it comes from the less powerful party. In our case, in order to deflect the great pains and horrors of any nuanced and honest racial discourse, we employ more acceptable ways to express/deflect rage, such as cynicism and irony, and transform it into laughter (and those who still become too angry are usually said to be overreacting, or in our case, “just another black person who needs to get over it”, “a race-baiter”, etc). But humor, sarcasm and cynicism are forms of coping; and as much as these methods have their place, their only true purpose is to incite change, and nothing will change as long as we use these tools to deflect our true feelings rather than empower them.

The most effective tool against racism is anger. The seemingly opposed movements of black power and nonviolent action both had the same element at the core: pure, unbridled rage.

[1] I was 5’8 at 13 just like Tamir was 5’7 at 12, so we both looked older than our age stature-wise, which would have made us both look “threatening”.

[2] It appears that it is incredibly hard to indict a police officer in cases where the civilian is severely injured or dead, because the court cannot prove that the officer did not have “objective reasonableness”. Check out the 1989 case of Graham v. Connor and a few articles (here, here, and here) detailing how the courts, the police, and the prosecutors somehow all manage to stick together when it comes down to it. (This is worth a whole blog post in itself)

[3] The black victims are always pitied in the same manner (or perps, as in every case, the cop was deemed the victim, and the still black body is always unfortunate collateral): “You know, It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I was following protocol.. I had no choice.. We make tough decisions sometimes, we didn’t want anybody to die”. It reminds me of the herd-mentality of the soldier or the employee… “I was just following orders”.

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