A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

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

More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

On "lynch mobs"

In a remarkably intemperate column published earlier this week at First Things, Robert P. George describes the "lynch mob" that he believes to be targeting opponents of same-sex marriage in the United States:

The lynch mob is now giddy with success and drunk on the misery and pain of its victims. It is urged on by a compliant and even gleeful media. It is reinforced in its sense of righteousness and moral superiority by the “beautiful people” and the intellectual class. It has been joined by the big corporations who perceive their economic interests to be in joining up with the mandarins of cultural power. It owns one political party and has intimidated the leaders of the other into supine and humiliating obeisance.

For the record, here's an account of a real-life lynch mob:

The scene at Macon Road near the bridge on the day of the lynching was like a "holiday" according to one newspaper, many people having stayed overnight. In the morning hundreds of men, women, and children gathered, and by 9.00 a.m. the road was packed with automobiles. A total of about 5,000 people attended the event, which had a carnival-like atmosphere according to Goings and Smith. Spectators bought soft drinks, sandwiches, and chewing gum, women wore their best clothes, and parents excused their children from school. One teacher at a school had 50 boys absent. Because of examinations, some county schools closed early, allowing the children to attend. Two trucks of drinks sold out swiftly, and sales of sandwiches and chewing gum were high.

Having arrived separately to Persons at about 9.00 am, Rappel's mother gave a speech: "I want to thank all my friends who have worked so hard on my behalf ... Let the Negro suffer as my little girl suffered, only 10 times worse"—sentiments which were echoed by the crowd. Persons was chained down, had a large quantity of gasoline poured over him, and set alight. The leader of the group had asked Rappel's mother if she wanted to light it; she declined, but said she "wished Persons to suffer the tortures he dealt to his victim". Persons was reportedly calm and casual, and made no sound except for a "faint pig squeal" when set alight. Mays said he stood close to his head "in spite of the African odor" and watched the whole performance. Members of the mob tried to help women who could not see get a better view, but they failed because of the sheer numbers. While Persons was burning, spectators snatched pieces of his clothes and the rope used to bind him. A newspaper described the moment of the lighting: "A crowd of some 5,000 men, women and children cheered gloatingly as the match was applied and a moment later the flames and smoke rose high in the air and snuffed out the life of the black fiend."

Persons' body was decapitated and dismembered, and his remains were scattered and displayed across Beale Street—the centre of the African American community in Memphis—where his head was thrown from a car at a group of African Americans. According to Charles W. Cansler, a spokesman for the local black community, his head was thrown into a room which contained black doctors. His remains were taken as souvenirs, and photographs of his head were sold on postcards for months after the event. The Commercial Appeal's headline the day after the lynching read: "Thousands cheered when negro burned: Ell Persons pays death penalty for killing girl", and their editorial on 25 May described the lynching as "orderly. There was no drunkenness, no shooting and no yelling."

And here's an account of George's "lynch mob" at work in Indiana:

Kevin O’Connor tells TMZ he's had to temporarily close his business after he told a reporter he would refuse to cater a gay wedding under Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. O'Connor says he was immediately flooded by threatening phone calls, and social media postings.

O'Connor wants to clear up one thing: He says he would never deny service to gay people in his restaurant. However, due to his religious beliefs, he does not believe in gay marriage ... and that's why he wouldn't service one.

Meanwhile, he says the threats have been serious enough that he's closing his pizza joint ... at least until the dust settles.

Drawing an analogy between these activities is not merely tone-deaf, inflammatory, and offensive, though of course it is all those things too. More importantly, it cheapens the suffering of those who endured, and continue to endure, extra-judicial violence and brutality because they happened to be born with skin of the wrong complexion. And as Paul Horwitz wrote earlier this week, this is exactly the sort of hyperbole that the public debate over religious freedom needs to do without.

I know, I know, the base needs its red meat. And there is room for serious criticism of the Left's position on religious liberty, and on much of what's been done to silence and punish their opponents. But if what it is to "stand shoulder to shoulder, and arm-in-arm" with George and his allies is to compare inconvenienced pizza shop owners to dead black boys, and angry posts on Facebook to cheers at the sight of their burning bodies, then I am going to count myself out.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Family issues: 50 years ago

“When Liberals Blew It” was the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s March 12 column in The New York Times.  The headline referred to the moment fifty years ago when liberals treated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist for proposing in a Labor Department report—eventually known as the “Moynihan Report”—that family disarray and the growth of single-parent households among African-Americans were reaching what would now be called a “tipping point.”  The leading factors countering black poverty—primarily male employment—were in danger of losing traction.  National action was imperative.

That Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty has been acknowledged all over the place—half a century too late, some might say, but in fact the acknowledgements have come steadily over the decades.  Kristof, one of our best columnists, was condensing a complicated story into a brief column, which didn’t do justice to all the details.  One liberal voice, for instance, that didn’t “blow it” was Commonweal’s. 

Read more

What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

Read more

Proof of Prejudice and the NC Shooting

In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive,” read yesterday’s front page of the New York Times. NPR asks, “Hate Crime or Parking Dispute?” This strikes me as a strange line of questioning. Why the rush to distinguish between a parking dispute and religiously motivated hatred? 

Since “hate crime” is a legal term, and prosecuting under hate crime legislation requires a particular burden of proof, quoting the family as saying, “this was a hate crime” (which they have repeated) rather than naming it as such is understandable within journalistic constraints. But whether the crime qualifies as a hate crime in a court of law, and whether we can talk about prejudice as a factor outside the courtroom are different things. Anger over an everyday event and having religious or racial prejudices are clearly not mutually exclusive attitudes, and prejudice is not a clear strain of thought easily plucked out from other kinds of thoughts. This is true whether we are describing ourselves, or another person. That feelings, fears, and motivations are often subconscious or partially conscious is partly why social prejudice is so pernicious. It is still necessary and useful to name prejudice when it’s there, but we cannot so easily claim for ourselves, or for others, when it’s not. Of course, not being able to confirm absence doesn’t confirm presence; criticism of hate crime legislation is often about that very difficulty.

Read more

Yale Police and the Threat of Lethal Force

Last Saturday, a member of the Yale Police pulled a gun on a young student for matching a description of a thief in the area. That student happened to be the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote about the incident with justifiable anger and fear.

The incident drew significant attention, and in a statement made Monday night, Peter Salovey, President of Yale; Jonathan Holloway, the Dean of Yale College; and Yale’s Chief of Police Ronnell Higgins, addressed what happened and referred to its implications. It begins:

"The Yale Police Department’s response to a crime in progress on Saturday evening has generated substantial and critical conversations on campus and beyond. A Yale police officer detained an African American Yale College student who was in the vicinity of a reported crime, and who closely matched the physical description—including items of clothing—of the suspect. The actual suspect was found and arrested a short distance away."

Salovey, Holloway, and Higgins also wanted to quell comparisons to incidents in recent memory:

"What happened on Cross Campus on Saturday is not a replay of what happened in Ferguson; Staten Island; Cleveland; or so many other places in our time and over time in the United States. The officer, who himself is African American, was responding to a specific description relayed by individuals who had reported a crime in progress."

The message is accurate that what happened “is not a replay” in that the officer did not apply lethal force. But in drawing his gun, the officer threatened to use it in a situation that did not warrant it. Why? The email says that a thorough internal investigation will take place to answer that very question. 

Read more

How White Is White? And Who Is White?

We have previously discussed the quesiton "When Did You Become White?"

The quesiton popped up again this morning while reading a silly polling story in the Sunday Times. The question concerned Bostonians and finding jurors for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother in the Marathon Bombing.

Are the Tsarnaevs white? This seems to be a factor in jury selection, or so the story suggests. As the author points out the brothers and their family hail from the Caucusus, the source for the word caucasian. If a caucasian is not white, who are all these white people running around?

A sister's witness to history

To mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Journal News of the Lower Hudson Valley (my local paper) has a front-page story about Maryknoll sister Madeline Dorsey, who was in Selma for the events that became known as "Bloody Sunday." There's a powerful photo of Dorsey and other marchers -- sisters, priests, and white and black demonstrators -- with some background on how she ended up at the front of that group:

When she got to the staging area on Friday, at a vast grassy space near a public housing site next to downtown, she said a Jesuit priest on the march planning committee approached her and two other nuns.

"He said, 'Come with me' and he put us on the front line," she said. "We had nothing to do with being on the front line, except we were placed there."

The imagery — three white nuns among the black marchers — sent a message: This is not a black march.

You can watch a video online of Sr. Dorsey, who is now 96 and living in Ossining, NY, being interviewed by journalist Peter Kramer. As it happens, her life of service has other resonances with today's headlines -- she was working in El Salvador when the American churchwomen were murdered, and the late Robert White was ambassador to that country (read Margaret O'Brien Steinfels's remembrance of White here).

Dorsey's final mission was in El Salvador during that country's bloody civil war and the reign of the death squads. When four church women were killed by Salvadoran troops in 1980, it fell to Dorsey and another nun to identify their bodies.

Another one of those sisters who were "not just nuns," but "political activists," as Jeanne Kirkpatrick famously put it. Thank God for them.

(P.S. You can see more of Sr. Dorsey and her fellow pioneering Maryknollers in this New York Times feature, which I blogged about here.)

A Reality Check on NYC--UPDATE

A lot of ignorant analysis has been written about New York City's mayor, police, and race relations. The New York Times editorial page keeps huffing and puffing at everyone. The Mayor has eulogized the dead while police officers turn their backs. Traffic tickets are down, arrests are down, and alternate-side of the street parking regulations have gone by the boards. The current cold spell ("Arctic clipper" says the weather page) seems to be keeping protestors home, or maybe it's the journalists staying home and not covering them.

Inevitably someone begins to allign the pieces. George Packer at the New Yorker-on-line makes a good beginning. 1. Clearly stating what all the major players have done wrong. 2. Pointing to the effects on the police and the citizenry of class-based housing in New York City. 3. Noting how many newcomers to the city have no idea what the NYC paradise of today once was. 4. How the poor, the marginal, the hanging on by their fingertips depend more than anyone on good policing. 5. Why most New Yorkers don't want to know what the police do.

Sample of point 5: "Few people really want to know what it takes to keep them safe. Policing is the kind of work—like sewage treatment, care of the elderly, legislating, embalming, and combat—that most of us prefer not to think about. It’s both ugly and essential, so essential that it creates a feeling of shame and resentment—and to avoid being disturbed by the thought we push it out of our minds, into the shadows, where the cops who protect us go about the dirty work of using the threat of violence to enforce the law. That’s where we want them to stay, so that we don’t have to think too much about what goes on in our defense, how the job of patrolling streets, questioning suspects, and making arrests rubs everyone raw. It breeds fear and hatred on both sides of the line."  New Yorker.

UPDATE: A retired police lieutenant weighs in on the NYTimes op ed page.