“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
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
“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
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
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?
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.
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.
As New Yorkers know and others may have heard - if you were reading social media, watching cable news, or perhaps just tuning in to the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony last night -- New York City saw a clutch of protest marches and demonstrations last night, after the announcement that a grand jury had failed to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner. More are planned for today.
It was a shocking outcome, even given the frequent failure of grand juries to indict cops (an exception to their otherwise high rate of indictment). As so many have observed, if the details were fuzzy and accounts hard to reconcile in the Ferguson, MO, shooting death of Michael Brown, in this case they were utterly clear. A bystander's cell-phone video captured the whole encounter, including Garner's pleading for breath as officers tackled him and Daniel Pantaleo kept an arm wrapped tightly around his neck. Garner was unarmed; he posed no threat to the the police, or to anyone else, except of course to their sense of authority. His "resisting arrest" was nonviolent. His supposed offense -- selling individual cigarettes on the street -- was minor. His cries of "I can't breathe!" were clear.
The family of Michael Brown has set a goal for protests in St. Louis: body cameras for police officers, which would capture encounters like the one that resulted in his death and reduce the need to rely on an officer's own account of the details. One thing video evidence has revealed, time and again, is that -- hard as it may be to believe -- police officers do sometimes lie about their actions in ways that make them look better, when they think no one will know the difference. But the Garner case has thrown cold water on that crusade: no body camera could have captured the incident more clearly than the video we already have, and still no indictment -- that is, a jury did not find probable cause for Pantaleo to stand trial for having wrongfully caused Garner's death.Read more
Let's just say I am no fan of David Brooks. Usually I pass over his first sentence and move on. His column this morning got something important right (i.e., correct) and I read all the way to the end.
Spoiler alert: He mentions Ferguson and then goes on to open up a conversation we should be having about class.
"Widening class distances produce class prejudice, classism. This is a prejudice based on visceral attitudes about competence. People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary. This belief has some grains of truth because of childhood trauma, the stress of poverty and other things....This class prejudice is applied to both the white and black poor, whose demographic traits are converging." Whole column here: NY Times.
Shortly after 5 pm yesterday, I joined with others and marched in protest. While I was marching, I had time to reflect: What brought me there? The immediate and proximate cause was of course the lack of an indictment in the Michael Brown case. I am profoundly concerned about the racialization of the criminal justice system. But an equally important commitment comes from a concern about the militarization of police power in our country. This is something I will address in forthcoming posts; I want to ask here whether any of you marched yesterday. What was your experience? What brought you there? If you didn’t march, did you find other ways of registering your protest? Where should we go from here?
As always, I welcome your comments.
Few are surprised by yesterday’s Grand Jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, despite the fact that it is extremely rare for grand juries not to return an indictment. A front-page story in today's New York Times paints a picture of both rage and resignation, quoting a protestor in New York: “You’re kind of numb to it at a certain point. It’s so systematic.”
Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, his 2013 collection of essays on being young, black, and male in the south, and it conveys the same sense of simultaneous anger and weariness. The epigraph is by James Baldwin: “Morally, there has been no change at all, and a moral change is the only real one.” It recalls the verse, Jeremiah 6:14, making the rounds today: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
In Laymon’s title essay, he recounts being pulled over by police for throwing non-existent drugs out the window of his girlfriend’s car. After he’s handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police car “for his own safety,” he comes home shaken and tries to work on his novel. He finds himself writing three times in a row: “We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.”Read more
You’re permitted to cast a ballot in Texas (where early voting began Monday) if you show a concealed-handgun license at the polling place, but not if you present a student, veteran, or federally recognized Indian tribe ID card. Of course, that eligible voters (in Texas and elsewhere) would suddenly need specific types of photo identification or meet any variety of strict new requirements was foreseeable when the Supreme Court last year struck down the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg memorably dissented at the time: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The umbrella discarded, Texas duly implemented measures making it indisputably harder for many people to vote—precisely the kind of maneuver the preclearance provision had many times since the civil rights era forestalled.
Just how hard was made clear by Ginsburg (who else?) in her quickly-becoming-famous, wee-hours dissent in the Court’s weekend decision allowing Texas’s voter identification law to stand—this despite an earlier federal ruling striking it down explicitly for its discriminatory intent. Ginsburg noted that more than 400,000 eligible voters face round-trip travel times of three hours or more to the nearest government office issuing the allowable forms of ID, where they will likely have to present a certified birth certificate. Those normally cost $22; though the state offers certificates for election purposes at $2 or $3, this information isn’t available on relevant websites or forms. Taken together, Ginsburg logically concluded, it amounts to a poll tax, and those were outlawed with ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment.
Texas has justified its strict new requirements as a safeguard against voter fraud. Two instances of voter impersonation were confirmed in all of the elections held in Texas between 2001 and 2011, so clearly there is a problem—though fraud isn’t it.Read more
When I commute by bus, I am often the only white person on it. I've been to diversity training many times and absorbed its lessons. I've had my classroom secretly subjected to a race audit -- a student who was tracking how many non-white voices were in the syllabus or cited as authorities in class. I know what redlining is.
In short, as a student and a teacher, I've been confronted about my white privilege quite consistently.
But I still needed Ferguson.Read more
Deep inside one of those lively and far-ranging discussion threads that makes dotCommonweal such a pleasure to read, I made a passing allusion last month to the issue of reparations and promised to come back to the topic. This post is a fulfillment of---or at least, a downpayment on---that promise.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' cover story for the June issue of The Atlantic is a tour-de-force. "The Case For Reparations" begins with Clyde Ross---born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1923 and living today in his home in North Lawndale, Chicago---as the reader's guide into Coates' central argument: that institutionalized racism in the US did not end with slavery in 1865, and was not ever confined to the former Confederate states; and that paying reparations to African-Americans is the only (or best) way for the the nation to settle "our compounding moral debts".
It's the kind of magazine essay that wins awards and---in a better country (or a better moment in this country's life)---changes history. Coates' masterful research and writing rings a clarion call that should (but probably won't) win a full and fair hearing for Rep. John Conyers' HR 40, A Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
A study completed two years ago asked college students at 17 colleges and universities: "How important to you personally is helping to promote racial understanding?" The question was posed three times: upon arriving at college, at the end of freshman year, and at the end of senior year. The researchers reported that each time the question was asked, the interests diminished: the longer students were in college, the less interested they became in racial understanding.
The researchers write:
These findings cast doubt on research and conventional wisdom that argues for the liberalizing effects of higher education on racial attitudes. Instead, it suggests that, for some students, negative experiences with diversity may dampen the relatively progressive racial views they hold when entering college.
These findings should have been expected; American universities were warned earlier about the need for to anticipate the challenges that would arise from increasing campus diversity.
In 1996 Ernest T. Pascarella, one of the researchers of the 2012 study, led a study entitled, “Influences on Students' Openness to Diversity and Challenge in the First Year of College (Journal of Higher Education 67.2 (1996) 174-195).” They found that women were more interested in diversity than men and nonwhite students were more interested than their white classmate. White college men were the least interested.
Their study of roughly 4000 students at 18 institutions over the course of four years led them to make a variety of fundamental assertions about what a university needed to do to become a place that promotes racial understanding. They recommended putting racially and ethnically mixed students together to face controversial issues; such encounters positively impacted the participants. Leaving them alone, however, only increased negative stances from disinterest to suspicions and intolerance. They recommended “purposeful policies and programs that both sensitize faculty, administrators and students to what constitutes racial discrimination and demonstrate unequivocally that such behavior is anathema to the institutional ethos.” In short they urged universities to create a nondiscriminatory racial environment, acknowledging that such an environment will not happen on its own.
Another study in 1999 found “that increasing the racial/ethnic diversity on a campus while neglecting to attend to the racial climate can result in difficulties for students of color as well as for white students.” And they found that, in fact, universities mistakenly think that increasing racial diversity increases a healthy racial climate.
Nonetheless they found that in those select instances where diversity functioned well, students engaged in more complex thinking about problems and considered multiple perspectives. The results not only bettered campuses’ racial climate but also students’ learning outcomes for students. In a word, taking race seriously could be a win-win for American universities.
As Brown university taught us years ago, however, taking race seriously might be more work than university administrators and faculty realize. American universities like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, and William and Mary were connected to the mind and resources of slavery as Craig Steven Wilder reports in his Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities. Racism runs deep in the American academy.
Both the 1996 and 1999 studies warned us that if we increased racial diversity without attending to the overall campus climate we would create a more negative atmosphere at the university. Walking across many campuses today we often find a certain self-selected racial segregation that further confirms the 2012 investigation.
The New York Times has a useful timeline of events in Ferguson, Missouri since the August 9 killing of Michael Brown. Grantland's Rembert Browne has a gripping and harrowing personal account of his first 48 hours reporting in Ferguson. Recent racial profiling data from the office of the Missouri Attorney General gives a statistical snapshot of the institutionalized racism that exists in Ferguson. The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. By following #Ferguson on Twitter, not only can you get up-to-the-minute reporting of events on the ground, you also can get an introduction to a slew of talented journalists like the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Boston Globe's Akilah Johnson and others who can answer (and often, already have) just about any question you might have about the crisis centered on Ferguson.
I know a priest who once began a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by noting that in 30 years of ministry, every conversation he'd had about this parable eventually---and usually quickly---turned to the question, "Does that mean I have to give change to every beggar who asks?". Similarly, almost every discussion of institutionalized racism in America today eventually ends up with someone saying, "Are you calling me a racist? Because I didn't/don't have anything to do with _____ (fill in the blank: slavery, Jim Crow, racially exclusive housing covenants, Ferguson....).Read more
As deftly summarized in this article by Adam Serwer, there is a through line connecting last year's evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court's five man Catholic majority in Shelby County v. Holder to the infamous1857 Dred Scott decision written by the Court's first Catholic justice, Roger Taney.
That fact alone is reason enough to give white Catholics in the United States pause this Independence Day regarding the enduring sin of racism, a sin inextricably interwoven with American history for at least 395 years.
The new issue of America, "Black and Catholic", offers a wealth of ways to enter into the topic---from a profile of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson, to a reflection on the life of Sr. Thea Bowman, to Vincent Rogeau's assessment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's impact, to book recommendations from a distinguished collection of black Catholic intellectuals, to a republication of the editors' reaction to passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago.
My own favorite (a word which when used as here means something like "deeply discomforting because it rings so true") contribution to this collection comes from Boston College professor of systematic theology M. Shawn Copeland. In "Revisiting Racism: Black Theology and a Legacy of Opporession", Copeland deftly summarizes the emergence of Black Theology from the "time of turmoil" (1954-68) and its enduring revelance in our current age of “elegant racism” which is “invisible, supple, enduring.”
Many thanks to all the editors and contributors to this issue of America for a lovely and timely Independence Day offering to the rest of us.
....and back to the big questions, such as, When will Hispanics, Asians, etc. become white people?
John Harwood has a political memo in the Times (10/31/13) about the way in which race bubbles underneath current policy struggles, e.g., ACA, immigration, welfare. He cites polls showing that a higher proportion of whites oppose these policies than non-whites.
"Whites tend to hold negative views of Obamacare, while blacks tend to like it. Specifically, 55 percent of whites, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found this year, consider Mr. Obama’s health care law a bad idea, while 59 percent of blacks call it a good idea. On immigration, 51 percent of whites oppose legal status for illegal residents, but 63 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics favor it.... Those attitudes, and the continued growth of the nonwhite population, have produced this sometimes-overlooked result: American politics has grown increasingly polarized by race, as well as by party and ideology."
His speculation: whites fear becoming a minority. Doesn't that beg a couple of questions. How are Hispanics nonwhites? Is it because they vote Democratic? Ditto Asians? Or is everyone who votes Democratic non-white, including whites!?
Yesterday I posted some excerpts from Francis E. Kearns's report on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, fifty years ago this week. Joseph Komonchak's comment on that post fills in some very interesting background on how the U.S. bishops were responding to the issues of civil rights, especially in preparation for the Second Vatican Council.
Today, some excerpts from Robert McAfee Brown's article "The Race Race," published October 11, 1963 (and slugged "A Protestant View"). Brown -- at that time a regular Commonweal columnist, a professor of religion at Stanford, and "an official observer at the Second Session of the Council" -- shared Kearns's impatience with white Christians who, he felt, were too slow in joining the fight for racial equality as their faith compelled them to do.
1963 will go down in history...as the year in which the white Christian churches visibly and tangibly began to involve themselves in the racial struggle. That there were sporadic involvements before 1963 on the part of the churches and churchmen is obviously true. There were many fine statements by Protestant church bodies and by Roman Catholic bishops. Certain southern parochial schools were integrated. Certain church people made brave stands. A few were even arrested. But until the summer of 1963 one did not have much sense that the white churches had really thrown in their lot with the Negro. As Eugene Carson Blake said in his speech at the March on Washington, churchmen could only participate in such a gathering penitently, for they have not been leading the fight but have been lurking in the rear.Read more
The fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is an excellent excuse to look into the Commonweal archives. What did Commonweal contributors have to say about the march -- who went, what did they take away, and where did they hope it would lead?
The first to report was Francis E. Kearns, then an assistant professor at Georgetown, who published his account of the march (which he attended along with some other Georgetown folks) in the magazine's September 20, 1963 issue ("Marching for Justice"). For him, the march was a watershed event in the history of religious institutions' engagement with the struggle for civil rights:
Perhaps the most significant gain scored by the march, however, is that, more than any previous incident or demonstration in the field of racial justice, it led great numbers of religious institutions and church members to make an act of commitment. In the past few years it has been the church authorities who have made the proclamations and joined in the rallies, but on August 28th one could see large groups of marchers carrying the banners of Bronx Hebrew congregations or Washington churches. On the speakers platform one could see the familiar bishops, but what was new was the presence in the audience of Washington parish priests, Woodstock seminarians, and suburban Maryland parishioners.Read more
- Page 1