dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Solidarity

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on five prior entries: civility, tolerance, humility, justice and mercy. Today, I want to turn to the sixth virtue, solidarity.

I learned of solidarity by being the son of a New York City police officer.  From my father’s work, I learned about a set of relationships that were neither with family nor friends, but rather with “partners” or fellow officers on the “force.”  These were the people with whom dad enjoyed a certain solidarity, a tangible and very evident one.  At any family event there were aunts and uncles and cousins, there were friends and neighbors, but there was also my dad’s partner, Frank Tornabene and his wife Joan, who fit in just as easily as everyone else.  Frank was never identified as anything but “my partner,” a term filled with meaning.  

At family parties my dad would tell stories from the force, that were always livelier when Frank was there.  My dad was a great raconteur; I heard every type of story from police chases to interrogations to cover-ups.  I developed an appreciation for his vocabulary---at six years of age I knew what a “perp” (aka perpetrator) was.  I am sure that his love for humanity and fairness that so animated those stories is what moved me to be in the field I am in today.  

Later, when he worked in Manhattan South homicide, I would walk into his office in lower Manhattan, and as I did, I knew that everyone knew who I was because like every cop, Dad shared his family with his squad.  From his stories, I knew who they were, and I knew that everyone there had “each other’s back.” There in those offices and from those stories, I learned what solidarity was like.   I was learning about the police force in all these stories and from them I knew that cops relied on one another, reflexively.  They didn’t give it a second thought.  

Read more

How to Change the World

It's a tall order, changing the world, especially when the subject is race. But it didn’t surprise me that Bryan Stevenson had ideas - four of them, in fact - worth listening to when I heard him speak earlier this year.

Stevenson is executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, an engrossing and deeply disturbing memoir about his baptism as a young lawyer into the fight against class- and race-based malpractice in our criminal justice system.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently recommended the book, sending me back to notes I made during Stevenson's April speech at Connecticut College.

Just Mercy was a "One Book, One Region" selection for my area, meaning individuals and organizations were encouraged to read and discuss it. If any book deserves to be a "One Book, One Nation" selection, this is it.

I had already read Mercy, attracted in part by its links to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson didn't intend to make that link, but one of the case histories he lays out is that of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Monroe, Alabama. Monroe, you may recall, was Lee's home and the model for the town in Mockingbird.

McMillian's case doesn't precisely mirror that of Mockingbird's fictional Tom Robinson, but how he was convicted and sentenced to death is equally egregious.

Read more

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Mercy

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on four prior entries: civility, tolerancehumility, and justice. Today, I want to turn to the fifth virtue, mercy which I call “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”      

Since the Gospel reading today is the Good Samaritan parable I thought I would reflect with you on that parable. But I would like to do it today—that is, after a week of racist killings in the US. I want to suggest that if mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” entering into civic discourse is an act of mercy!     

But, we should not be thinking of ourselves as simply being merciful when we enter into civic discourse. We should think of entering into the civic discourse just as Jesus wants us to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we allow ourselves to be decentered.  

Read more

Georgetown University: A Case for Reparations?

What does Georgetown owe to descendants of the 272 slaves sold by the Society of Jesus in the fall of 1838 to ensure the university's survival? An apology? A memorial? Scholarships? Or something else?

Those are among the questions raised by Saturday's NY Times article about the Georgetown community—administrators, professors, students and alumni—and its deepening efforts to reckon with the school's history.

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

Now, with racial protests roiling college campuses, an unusual collection of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists is trying to find out what happened to those 272 men, women and children. And they are confronting a particularly wrenching question: What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival?

The entire article is worth reading, most grippingly for what it reveals about Cornelius Hawkins, his family and their extraordinary faith. Georgetown historian Adam Rothman calls the episode, and the school's Jesuit archives, “a microcosm of the whole history of American slavery".

The sale marked the end of nearly two centuries of slaveowning by the Maryland Jesuits. Proceeds from the sale not only helped save Georgetown; they also helped finance Fordham.

Staff Picks: 'The New Jim Crow'

I’d heard a lot about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow before I finally got around to reading it—how “devastating” it was, how it would irrevocably change the way I looked at the world. And I saw a lot of it too, with people on the subway and elsewhere obviously absorbed by it. I became familiar with its haunting cover—two black hands clutching prison bars above the subtitle: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Alexander came around to writing The New Jim Crow out of her own skepticism about the severity of racial injustice. She was working for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in northern California when she saw a poster taped to a bus stop by “some radical group” that read: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” She thought the characterization to be exaggerated, so she decided to look deeper into the history of the war on drugs. But what she found by digging through the fine print of the tough-on-crime bills passed in the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush (II), and Obama years—and by reviewing the media campaigns against drugs—was that the poster had it right. The mass incarceration resulting from drug laws has essentially had the same effect as Jim Crow by creating and sustaining a racial “undercaste,” Alexander discovered, and like Jim Crow has also kept black Americans out of power. Since explicitly racist laws can’t be made, implicitly racist ones are. “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged,” Alexander told the New York Times shortly after the book’s release in 2012. “Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”

As someone who grew up in the “age of colorblindness,” I’ve experienced a sort of disembodied understanding of race, and I was taught that the United States had moved beyond a history of “racist” laws. Alexander’s book has led me to realize that it’s not only drug laws and mass incarceration that have created and helped sustained a new undercaste, but also the inaction of that part of America for whom the system works; by the complacency that comes with trust in the political system, they can help sanction injustice. Awakening to how I’ve been used in this way is freeing—things begin to make more sense when you understand why something you think is wrong is, in fact, wrong. Reading this book wasn’t as grueling as I expected it to be. Alexander’s writing is accessible and captivating. By the end, you feel galvanized.

When 'Aggression' is Police Protocol

Imagine you’re a woman in your late twenties with a job at a multinational software company. You play soccer as a hobby and come home after a game one night to find you’ve locked yourself out of your apartment. It’s around 11:15 by the time the locksmith has let you in, and you’re taking off your shoes when you hear a voice and a barking dog near your front porch. You go to the window, pull back the blinds, and see a man pointing a gun at you. You step back from the window and hear the man say, “Come outside with your hands up!” What do you do next?

Correctly assuming it was the police who ordered her outside, Fay Wells of Santa Monica, California, obeyed. Writing in the Washington Post about the September 6 incident, Wells describes how officers commanded her down from her porch at gunpoint without answering her repeatedly asked question: “What’s going on?” Only after they searched her apartment did officers explain why they were there. But none of them could give Wells, who is African American, a satisfactory explanation as to why there were nineteen of them, and they assured her it had nothing to do with race. “The fact is,” she later told NPR’s Ari Shapiro “the first time that they interacted with me, they had guns drawn, which just felt incredibly aggressive and not like they were trying to assess the situation.”

Shortly after Wells's piece appeared in the Post, Santa Monica police chief Jacqueline Seabrooks released a statement on the incident, affirming the claims Wells made—yes, the department sent nineteen police officers and a K-9  to investigate a 9-1-1 caller’s claim that a Latino man and two girls, “possibly Hispanic” were attempting a break-in “using tools”—and defending that protocol. “In smaller communities, like Santa Monica,” Seabrooks explained “a response of this type is not uncommon.”

Unfortunately, in incidents involving women of color, such responses by law enforcement seem to have become common in recent months, with police acting aggressively in non-criminal, non-confrontational encounters and escalating them into violent ones. 

Last July, twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Bland, who after refusing to put out her cigarette in the course of a Texas traffic stop was pulled from her car, threatened with a Taser ("I'm going to light you up," Trooper Brian Encina was recorded on dashboard-camera telling her), arrested without being told why, and pushed face-first into the grass. She was found hanging in a jail cell three days after the stop; her death, officially ruled a suicide, is currently being considered by a grand jury. The month before that, McKinney, Texas, officer Eric Casebolt, responding to reports of an unruly pool party, was videotaped grabbing fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton by the hair, throwing her to the ground, sticking his knee into her back, and shoving her into the grass, yelling “on your face!” —then pulling his gun on other teens. And in October, video captured Richland County, South Carolina, deputy Ben Fields flipping a slumped high school student out of her desk, wrestling her to the ground, then dragging her across the floor of the classroom.

As a white woman it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine an interaction with police officers like these, or the one that Fay Wells describes. I’m more likely to be assumed as a victim of a burglary than a burglar. It’s hard to believe that an officer who hadn’t identified himself would continue to point a gun at me after I’d put my hands up and obediently followed his order. In fact, if I'm honest, I reflexively hesitate to attribute aggressive response and escalation by police offices to race at all—because it's easy for me to deny. And I’m not alone. A survey by McClatchy-Marist from December 2014 showed 50 percent of whites have “a great deal of confidence in the police to gain the trust of those they serve” compared with only 22 percent of African Americans.

Having been on the receiving end of an aggressive and unnecessarily escalated response has permanently changed how Fay Wells feels about the criminal justice system despite assurances from the Santa Monica police that they only intended to keep her safe.

The Santa Monica police department is currently reviewing what happened at Wells's home. Chief Seabrook says the incident is “reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink.” Others might see it as indicative of a different pattern, in which disproportionate response by police—operating with wide discretion and little accountability—is actually putting certain women at much greater risk.

Black Millennials & the Racial Wealth Gap

Mel Jones writes in the Washington Monthly about an issue I and many of my peers are familiar with: how to pay off student debt and other bills in a not-so-great economy, yet somehow build a financial foundation for the future. Her experience, however, is fundamentally different from mine, in that as a person of color she must also contend with what’s come to be known as the “second” racial wealth gap—the second phase in a “financial disparity that stems from continuous shortfalls in parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks,” which, Jones explains, “works to create an unlevel playing field.”

Since owning a home accounts for over 50 percent of wealth for blacks (compared with 39 percent for whites) and since black Americans are five times less likely to inherit wealth than white Americans generally (7 percent to 36 percent), low homeownership rates among black Americans, which often are the result of discriminatory lending practices, are a large contributing factor to the racial wealth gap. In addition, Jones points out, “[T]he most recent housing bust is estimated to have wiped out half of the collective wealth of black families—a setback of two generations,” resulting in essentially an exponential setback for millennials of color.

Jones cites a recent study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on the dynamics of wealth accumulation that found an estimated 20 percent of personal wealth can be attributed to formal and informal gifts from family members, especially parents. But blacks and Hispanics starting their careers are not likely to get such a boost. Moreover, they’re already starting at a disadvantage, given that they take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, “often to pay for routine expenses, like textbooks, that their parents are less likely to subsidize,” Jones writes. They also often have to work while in college, thus missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates and forge the professional ties that might help them later.

I know I wouldn’t be where I am without “formal and informal gifts from family members,” before, during, and after college. I wouldn't have been able to make decisions toward furthering my professional career if I couldn't, for example, stay on my family’s cell phone plan or receive help covering the cost of an apartment security deposit. Understanding that there are inherent long-term benefits in being able to choose career development over routine expenses is one part of understanding what in current discourse is calledprivilege.” As Jones puts it simply: “If you have to decide between paying for a professional networking event or a cell phone bill, the latter is likely to win out”:

When this happens once or twice on a small scale, it’s not a big deal. It’s the collective impact of a series of decisions that matters, the result of which is displayed among ethnic and class lines and grounded in historical privilege.

Read more

Boo Who at Yale

DotCommonweal readers may be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with this topic, but events keep conspiring to focus public attention on the subject of political correctness and campus speech codes. And each time they do, I recall Jean Raber’s post to one of my earlier entries, in which she asked, in effect, What do people mean when they refer to “political correctness?”

What they mean is being amply illustrated on campuses this fall. I’ve already written about the turmoil at Wesleyan University, where students effectively sought to shut down the school paper after it ran an op-ed, written by a 31 year old undergraduate and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently I wrote about various campus dust-ups over the issue of Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.

Now Halloween is gone, but the Boo! controversy is continuing to convulse Yale University with events politically lurid enough to have been torn from the pages of a Tom Wolfe novel. The flap began when several students at one of Yale’s residential colleges complained to their house masters about what a downer it was to receive guidelines from Yale’s administration concerning Halloween costumes. Yale undergraduates live in dorms known as colleges; the residences have live-in advisors – typically faculty members – who play an in loco parentis function. The masters at Sillliman College are Nikolas and Erika Christakis; he is a physician and sociologist, she is a lecturer in childhood development and education. After fielding the complaint from dorm residents about the Halloween costume guidelines, she sat down and composed a lengthy and conspicuously thoughtful email in which she essentially agreed with them that the University should relax and, well, let Halloween be Halloween. Speaking, she said, as a child development researcher, she asked aloud, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” and argued for basing costume decisions on individual prudence rather than administrative fiat. “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” her email counseled. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” She sent the email to residents of Silliman.

And then all hell broke loose.

Read more

In Search of a 'Civil-Rights Republican'

Those who lived through it may find it hard to believe that Wednesday, November 4, marks just the thirty-fifth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election as president: All the praise, adoration, and incantatory recitation of his name in the time since make it feel a lot longer than three-plus decades. With election season underway, greater public devotions become obligatory, not only but especially when candidates debate against the backdrop of an Air Force One replica in the eponymous presidential library, where Reagan's name was mentioned forty-five times.

With the GOP’s national standard bearer having lost five out of six popular elections after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the party looked briefly into the mirror and issued a report on how to stop alienating voters it needed to win the White House. The recommendations were commonsensical and have thus been forgotten. Building walls, cutting taxes on the wealthy, demonizing Obama, demonizing Obama voters—these have much more appeal, and besides, Ronald Reagan.

Frustration with the Republicans’ continued inability to lure African American voters—their continued futility all but guaranteed in 2016—has prompted Theodore R. Johnson to offer an eminently reasonable, if less eminently realistic, prescription. Writing in The National Review, he calls for a civil-rights Republican, a national figure “strong on bedrock conservative principles as well as civil-rights protections [who] will win the support of black voters at levels the party hasn’t seen in generations.” I say reasonable, because Johnson premises his call on what the party itself might consider an inconvenient truth: “The stark polarization of the black electorate is a function of the evolution of [Republican and Democratic] stances on civil-rights protections. Period. There is no mystery here.” Republicans, he says, operate according to a fundamental misunderstanding of African Americans and what motivates their voting decisions; Republicans have accepted and perpetuated the “false narrative” that black voters support Democrats because they expect unearned benefits; Republicans “ignore history” when they point to the Constitution as a guarantor of civil rights given the failure of the 14th Amendment to “prevent the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ or statutory Jim Crow.” Johnson states that yes, voter ID laws passed in the aftermath of Shelby v. Holder have made “made voting more difficult for many blacks.” He points out that Republican attempts at outreach are “repeatedly undone by inadvisable strategic communication choices and a basic callousness about the black experience in America.” Not just reasonable, but almost bracing, in the pages of The National Review.

But realistic?

Read more

Vicissitudes of Meaning: ‘All Lives Matter’ vs. Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged after the 2013 Trayvon Martin case, has been raising havoc on the presidential campaign trail, becoming the subject of heated debate. Republican candidate Ben Carson complained, “The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is focused on the wrong targets, to the detriment of blacks who would like to see real change.” Said Rand Paul, another Republican candidate: “I think they should change their name maybe – if they were ‘All Lives Matter,’ or ‘Innocent Lives Matter.’” Some are even calling Black Lives Matter a hate group whose rhetoric is partially responsible for the recent shooting of a sheriff in Texas. [*] In contrast, Cornel West, a proud member of the activist group, insists it is fighting a noble battle against state-sanctioned violence against African Americans.

According to the Black Lives Matter mission statement: “#BlackLivesMatter is an ideological and political intervention; we are not controlled by the same political machine we are attempting to hold accountable. In the year leading up to the elections, we are committed to holding all candidates for office accountable to the needs and dreams of Black people…”

So far, the primary methodology of accountability has been to interrupt the public appearances of presidential hopefuls and bombard them with questions about their sense of responsibility for the current state of affairs and their plans to eradicate racial injustice. Black Lives Matter has crashed public appearances by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley.

At an O’Malley appearance a few weeks ago, lieutenants of the movement leapt to the stage, commandeered the mike, and demanded that O’Malley answer the seemingly rhetorical question, “Do black  lives matter?” With great conviction, the former governor huffed, “ All lives matter.” The duo practicing the politics of disruption were not satisfied and reacted to O’Malley’s answer as if to say “Wrong!”

O’Malley, who has a strong record on civil rights, was profoundly perplexed. After all, you don’t need to be a logic professor to understand that “all lives matter” implies “black lives matter.” But despite his good intentions, maybe O’Malley in his puzzlement was missing something.

Read more

Hillary speaks....

As long-time readers/commenters at dotCommonwela know I am no Hillary-fan, but I did admire her snap-back at a group of "Black Lives Matter" groupies with whom she met having somehow kept them from disrupting a public appearance somewhere in Campaign Land. What I liked in this "private" but videoed meeting was her listening very carefully to them, and then giving them as good as they gave her. NYTIMES STORY

Mrs. Clinton, after listening and nodding for several minutes, responds calmly that her life’s work has been helping the nation’s poorest children, many of them black, before turning the tables on the much younger man and demanding instead to know how he plans to turn his deeply felt emotions into meaningful, lasting change. “You can get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say: ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ ” she says. “That’s not enough, at least in my book.”....."I don’t believe you change hearts,” Mrs. Clinton says, summarizing her basic view of social policy movements. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

Her interlocutor [a person who takes part in a conversation or dialogue] from Black Lives Matter, "Mr. [Julius] Jones" in the NYTimes story, spoke and let her speak reminding her that all the battles of the slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movements have not resolved many of the issues facing young African-Americans. How was she going to change hearts? He's less than half right about hearts. She is more than half-right ..."change laws...allocation of resources, [and] the way the system operates."

In a country that hardly remembers the last war it started, Mrs. Clinton at least remembers what worked last time (legislation and organizing) and what didn't  (half-assed  rhetoric).

P.S. The Bracketed statements are for the benefit of a critic (the interlocutor's first name was not in the first story I saw; it now is).

New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Naked Racism, or Naked Partisanship?

Upon the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby ruling that invalidated long-standing preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states that had been subject to those provisions immediately began to impose new restrictions on voting and voter registration. Many believe these to have a disproportionate effect on African American voters, and thus many also and understandably believe these restrictions to be racially motivated. But what if it's not racism that generated opposition to the VRA and spurred the move toward the new, stricter requirements their backers say are aimed at reducing vote fraud? What if it instead is "naked partisanship"?
 
That's a possibility Randall Kennedy floats in his Harper's review (subscription) of Ari Berman's new book, Give Us the Ballot. After several pages spent on the history of voting rights since Reconstruction -- including the 1965 passage of the VRA and the political hostility toward it, as seen only in part by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's expressed preference for not signing reauthorization -- Kennedy toward the end of the piece cites recent legal scholarship in reconsidering the significance of race in the Shelby decision and subsequent implementation of voting rights restrictions.
 
Samuel Issacharoff, for instance, writing in the Harvard Review, "compared Section 5 of the VRA to an aging athlete, 'one step too slow to carry the team.'" Its forced retirement may be a good thing, prompting voting rights advocates to to consider "new mechanisms to a new era" that should no longer focus on "'the historically central question of racial exclusion.... [T]he category of race increasingly fails to capture the primary motivation for what has become a battlefield in partisan wars.'" Similarly, Guy-Uriel E. Charles and Luis Fuentes Rohwer in the Yale Law Journal--though skeptical of the Shelby decision--"do not see the end of preclearance as the disaster" that some bemoan: "'[I]n the current era we cannot say without any amount of certainty that the central problem of voting is race.'" Kennedy himself comes down on this side: "The VRA has completed the main task it was designed to address. Societal changes have made inconceivable the recrudescence of wholesale, unambiguous racial disenfranchisement" (italics his). 
 
The reaction to this of those alarmed by the spate of recorded deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement; by the racially motivated attack on Charleston's Emanuel AME Church; and by the edgy resentment of those opposed to the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces might be: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?  A return to unambiguous racial disenfranchisement may not seem so inconceivable in the midst of all of this. Then add in what this weekend's New York Times Magazine lengthy cover story characterizes as a five-decade effort by Republican activists at systematically dismantling the protections of the VRA: Is there anything so ambiguous about that campaign?
 
And yet: what if Kennedy is on to something?
Read more

Where were you when the flag came down?

"You should remember where you were when this happened," said CNN's Don Lemon this morning as he awaited the lowering of the Confederate battle flag at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.
 
I was alone in my kitchen, fixated on a small television screen, wishing mightily that I could be there on the grounds, standing and cheering with the thousands, black and white, joined together to witness the lowering of a symbol of racism and divisiveness. If there were any dissenters in the crowd, they were drowned out.
 
After the flag was respectfully folded, the crowd gave a boisterous rendition of the pop song refrain "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." It wasn't "Amazing Grace" or "We Shall Overcome," and I was a bit let down by the musical choice. But the removal of the flag to a military museum was a moving and historic moment.
 
Will it be a transformational one? For that, we'll have to work hard and see.
 
Two weeks before a white racist murdered nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was in South Carolina in part to research my deep family roots in the state. Some roots I want to hang onto, and some I'd like to sever. But they are all mine, and I must live with them.
Read more

Jacob Lawrence—Again

Following up on a column I wrote about Jacob Lawrence's "The Great Migration," here is a NYTimes book review of the catalog accompanying the show now at MOMA (through September 7).

The review is by Isabel Wilkerson whose own master work, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the migration story through the lives of several of those who made the journey. An impressive work in its own right.

Lawerence's great 60-panel work will open at DC's Phillips Gallery in 2016.  All of this apropos of so many events of the last several weeks, beginning with Charleston.

Forgiveness & the Flag

Hearing the names of the nine victims in Charleston read at Mass on Sunday, it was hard not to hear as well the statements of forgiveness from their survivors made at last Friday’s bond hearing for the shooter, Dylann Roof. “I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you” – the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance – became the headline of Saturday’s print edition of The New York Times, but it’s the clips of Collier and others in court that truly convey the power of the moment, the grace of those whose loved ones were taken. It’s impossible not to be moved, or even awed—as a number of pundits admitted to being when the footage was aired.

Inevitably, much has been written and said about “forgiveness” in the days since, some of it by Cornell West. In an appearance Monday on New York public radio he called the survivors’ statements of forgiveness, and the favorable response to them, “bad theology.” The forgiveness, he said, “is premature… We have to put love at the center of this but forgiveness is something that comes further down the line… [This] has remnants of the niggerized Christianity that has been operating in the history of the black church….” Of course, provocation is West’s main mode. But his co-guest on the segment, Amy Butler of Riverside Church, allowed that he was getting at something important. The survivors’ words of forgiveness, she said, “are deeply moving but they call us to something deeper, and they remind us of a sin in our country that cannot be ignored anymore… [A] voice of remorse also needs to come from a system and a nation….”

The possibility of forgiveness from family members is one issue; the possibility (if not the likelihood) of its appropriation and use as absolution from any further responsibility for or concern with the underlying causes of the attack is another.

Read more

A Tale of Two Churches

Understanding last night's massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, where a young white man entered one of the city's oldest historically black churches and shot to death nine people who were participating in a prayer meeting, requires understanding the intersection of race and religion in the American South, and that is no small matter.

I know this difficulty firsthand: about two years ago I moved with my family to Tallahassee, Florida, and in the past few months we stopped attending the large, predominantly white parish on the north side of town where we enrolled as parishioners when we first moved in, and are now going instead to a small parish on the city's south side where the congregation at the English-language Mass is so predominantly black that ours is often the only white family in attendance.

Read more

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Thank you, Freddie Gray

CNS photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, Reuters

Thank you, Freddie Gray.

You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.

Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.

Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.

And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.

Read more