Category Archives: Race and Religion

Run It Black Podcast: Andre 3000 Still Got Something to Say

On this week’s Run it Black Podcast, we talk about a fascinating GQ profile on the rapper Andre 3000, the importance of the rap duo Outkast, and why Andre continues to remain relevant at age 42. We also go speak to the development of Southern Hip-Hop and its influence on much of the rap game in 2017, regardless of region. Later on, we dive into where Hip-Hop as a genre is headed and whether it can evolve into an art form that speaks to the experience of older folks. Finally, we give our top 5 Andre 3000 tracks because, well, of course we would. You won’t want to miss this episode!

 Music Below:

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34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Black Death as Spectacle and Ritual

A black person does not really discuss black people dying without also feeling a subtle contempt or masochism, but there is also gratitude when black death is made public (à la Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, insisting for the world to see what America did to her son by having an open casket funeral for his unseeable soul) — because there are so many black deaths that are ignored by mass media, or simply forgotten — but how could one forget what one never thought was worth knowing, counting, excavating, cherishing? It’s almost as if you can kill a black person for existing, while also denying they ever truly existed. We want to say with Mamie, “Look what they are doing to us! Still!!!”, and are grateful for this chance, but also frustrated and shameful that our cries continue to fall on deaf ears. Why grieve at all? Who is even listening — we ourselves are tired of grieving and listening to others grieving for us. As long as its another black person, and not myself, whose family will have to deal with the aftermath of their unjust loss (and no real hope of actual justice), how does that affect my mental health?

We of darker persuasions cannot mourn ourselves every day, or can we? Are we built to mourn and live like this? The twin archetypes of the strong black woman and hyper-masculine black man have the answer: of course, we are built for this. A prerequisite of these archetypes is the inability to feel pain — and denial of pleasure, conversely — and the failure to perceive pain in others: an utter lack of basic humanity. Blackness under the western gaze is not sentient — it cannot think or feel in any civilized way, which is the only way that counts. (Of course dark people can think and feel in primitive ways, isn’t that what the continent of Africa is for?) This is why some white people can be very passionate about animal ethics or environmental causes but somehow cannot process basic principles of structural racism, hence the pejorative “animal whites”. In western thought, “black” is not characterized by viable boundaries and demarcations, but more aptly by what it lacks: the holy grail of whiteness. This is similar to how de Beauvoir describes feminine qualities under the masculine gaze in The Second Sex.

“He [Man] thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection with the world, which he believes he apprehends objectively, whereas he regards the body of woman as a hindrance, a prison, weighed down by everything peculiar to it. ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.”

Whatever black is, is irrelevant; it’s only important to know that it’s not white — which is perhaps one reason why white immigrants could gradually (only after deep shame and self-contempt) trade in their ethnic pride for the immaculate coin of whiteness. The Italians, the Irish, the Greeks, and many in eastern Europe who have definite Asian or African ancestry all had to become “white” — and becoming something that doesn’t exist requires much conjuring, sorcery, and blatant deception.

Ellison echoes the same in a 1970 essay, What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,

“Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “nigger” – it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”

And Baldwin picks up the torch in On Being White and Other Lies:

“No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country…. America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.”

This positioning of blackness as outsider, outlaw, something lacking agency, uniqueness, responsibility and thus any truly productive role in society, is the start of “black death as spectacle” and a hallmark feature of whiteness. The spectacle is, as Du Bois says,

“a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Onlookers are amused because they don’t understand how a people so gifted can still be suffering so greatly in a country that they built. The onlooker’s detachment from black suffering buttresses their amusement. The black person alike can be detached from the suffering of their own people by bleak attempts to assimilate towards external markers of whiteness and respectability that it promises.

As Ellison briefly touched on, the paradox of black death is how undeniably and uniquely American we are (regardless of how much we wish otherwise). No matter how much the police and government and our nonblack neighbors convince us otherwise. We may not have all came here by choice, but we came and built this land with our sweat, tears and intelligence — which is why it hurts all the more that black lives don’t seem to matter to our country and our people. 

***

In her 1969 book Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlines the five steps of grief that usually occur when a person encounters their own death. This is analogous to what can happen when we witness an unprovoked loss of black life. The stages are as follows:

Denial

Usually accompanied by shock (“How could this have happened to someone so young or educated or civilized or promising or successful or harmless? What could they have possibly done to deserve this? How were they able to do this on camera? Weren’t body cams supposed to enforce an honor code?”)

Anger

Persistent denial quickly leads to full-blown rage and disgust (“Fuck the police and this country. I hate white people and white supremacy. Why does this always happen to us?”). These feelings are not new, but simply resurface over and over again to deal with recurring grievances. Anger towards ourselves for not doing something about it sooner (but also feeling helpless because we have no idea how to stop it), towards black people for not rising up and forming some militia of the people, angry at non-blacks for being so complacent with black death

Bargaining

Appeals to respectability politics and persistent rationalization are performed: (“The assailant must have had a good reason”, “the officer feared for their life and did they best they could, it’s a tough job, lives will get lost, sorry”, “the victim had a history of criminal offenses or drug abuse, petty or otherwise”, “The victim shouldn’t have been in that place at that time of day/night or should have just done what the officer told them to do”, “The officer should have had their body cam on, then there would be no ambiguity about exactly how it went down”, “The family life or childhood of the victim has some minor detail that justifies their imminent demise”

Anyone, not just black people, can bargain in this way and make excuses for the incident. Respectability politics for black people is merely a special case of the well-known  “just world fallacy”

Depression

This phase can last for months and years and takes a severe toll on black mental health worldwide, especially those who lose family members or see the events live. The candid realization that black lives don’t matter, and there are still people who argue that advocating for your survival is a terrorist act — which, technically, it is! Because it brings absolute terror to the idea of whiteness having the sole claim to which lives do and don’t matter.

Acceptance

“Well, we should make peace with our status”, having “the talk” with your black children, “We can’t prevent ourselves from being killed, we can’t really bear arms or shoot back, and when killed, we are unlikely to receive justice, so we should lower our standards and do the best we can”, me being paranoid that having a broken taillight can lead to my death (à la Sandra Bland), normalcy and desensitization of black death takes center stage:

“What happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a black person is killed in the United States, we recognize black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy? What will happen then if instead of demanding justice we recognize (or at least consider) that the very notion of justice — indeed the gamut of political and cognitive elements that constitute formal, multiracial democratic practices and institutions — produces and requires black exclusion and death as normative?” – Joy James & Joāo Costa Vargas, Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs

Unconsciously, this perpetual cycle of grief can lead us to agree with the general public opinion that we are “a problem”, (whether we are our own problem to fix or it is our environment’s fault is another question entirely, usually set up as a false dichotomy) which Du Bois noticed long ago in the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

Du Bois’s playful way describes perfectly why having nuanced conversations about race is so difficult with white people; they so often don’t want an answer to the real question: How does it feel to be black, to be at the bottom of this brutal yet worthless racial hierarchy? Black feelings are white nightmares.

White people usually don’t have the patience to listen to this answer, because they congenitally lack the patience and nuance to examine their own complicity. Whiteness is curable if the owners know its true cost. White people, in the main, have failed to be human, because they are too busy trying to be white. But they are too white to admit this, and yet drowning in white guilt is neither salve nor salvation. 

***

And finally, we find ourselves at the performance art piece, or the conspicuous consumption of black death as a spectacle — as something to be gawked at, internalized, amused by, as a perennial window into western morality, to be pitied and empathized from afar but never entering the heart of the matter, on how collective black rage/action is the world’s worst nightmare (even for some black people themselves to honor the rage they have every right to) — and as ritual, an almost religious experience that ensures the spectacle plays out its script via mass media, pleas for respectability politics, and calls to action that want reform without revolution:

The Spectacle:

public display and knowledge of black death, which renders blacks privy to embarrassment and humiliation, and offers non-blacks a chance to internalize black inferiority — and for both parties to assume that justice will not be served no matter how clear-cut the case may seem.

private knowledge as blacks navigate feelings of self-hate, self-pity, and decide how best to fight back against the world’s assumption of their innate inferiority and still love being black, and not simply tolerate it.

The Ritual is simply the performance of the spectacle, day after day, with these key underwriting features:

  • repetition (it happens again and again, seemingly without end, since this country’s inception)
  • These incidents may follow one another in quick succession, within days or weeks. One event’s grief can overshadow the other. A very essential demoralizing effect — why grieve for one of them when they all happen so fast? why grieve at all?  This is the entry point into learned helplessness. Rage must be distilled into apathy or else it becomes lethal to the oppressive regime. The ritual usually does not end in anger, but makes the full cycle through to depression and acceptance and starts anew upon another incident.
  • Outrage and call to arms (riots, protests, public displays of morning and rage, black separatism through self-sufficiency, chastising whites for being complicit with their inaction or for actively denying that it even happened, sharing information about the incident on public media) as public outrage responds then quickly retreats as event fades from public memory
  • Church folk praying for strength to forgive those who are complicit in black death, which ostensibly will also help the praying black person not to hold a grudge against American society for its deliberate blindness to the black plight.
  • The dissemination and proliferation of black death as film and image on social media in our age is meant to drive home the concept of learned helplessness, which is basically the default black mindset today, rage distilled into apathy. This reinforces a deep powerlessness as you see cops explain away everything in court.

***

Every black person in America is raging eternally beyond belief in their private life — the real difference is how it manifests itself in public life. Every black soul must — and will, no matter how much they run and hide — grapple with the incessant sermon on the mount concerning their own public worthlessness, which is meant to guarantee the adoption of private suicide, the annihilation of black intellect, agency and hope. But, take care to know that this doesn’t mean white supremacy wants to elimination of black life but merely the reins and subjugation of black spirit; it simply demands the cooperation (complicit or not) of black people in the maintenance of the laws and systems that routinely deny their basic humanity — hence the eternal return to our old friend, “the politics of respectability” as a last-resort plea to the powers that be: “Don’t hurt us or our children. We know how to render ourselves harmless, unlike those other negroes. We will get educated, speak proper English, dress appropriately and be respectful contributors to the economy. We admit to our own disposability and inferiority and hope American culture can have a civilizing effect upon us. We won’t confront white fragility with our black rage”. This has been the most common response to white power and even if it outwardly works, a piece of the soul is drawn into self-loathing every time this strategy is used. Any politic of respectability is unremitting and unabashed self-hate. What would a true politics of black liberation look like? I’m sure there are black people who can say it better for us, but a passage from the beautiful Andrea Dworkin captures the core urgency of a holy rage that nurtures neither apology nor reluctance:

“Imagine– in present time–a woman saying, and meaning, that a man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing her. Suppose there were a politics of liberation premised on that assertion–an assertion not of ideology but of deep and stubborn outrage at being misused, a resolute assertion, a serious assertion by serious women. What are serious women; are there any; isn’t seriousness about freedom by women for women grotesquely comic; we don’t want to be laughed at, do we? What would this politics of liberation be like? Where would we find it? What would we have to do? Would we have to do something other than dress for success? Would we have to stop the people who are hurting us from hurting us? Not debate them; stop them. Would we have to stop slavery? Not discuss it; stop it. Would we have to stop pretending that our rights are protected in this society? Would we have to be so grandiose, so arrogant, so unfeminine, as to believe that the streets we walk on, the homes we live in, the beds we sleep in, are ours–belong to us–really belong to us: we decide what is right and what is wrong and if something hurts us, it stops. It is, of course, gauche to be too sincere about these things, and it is downright ridiculous to be serious. Intelligent people are well mannered and moderate, even in pursuing freedom. Smart women whisper and say please.” – Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women

 

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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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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Race and Religion

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.

THOMAS

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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Filed under Foreign Policy, Race and Religion

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