Power

I’ve been hesitant to post this, not because of my opinion (As if!) but because I’m not sure it’s pertinent to a wider audience. Then I started to think that a whole mess of us are trying to figure out how to be effective activists, and that maybe any information in one direction or another would be helpful. 

On Saturday, I attended a community-action meeting that was both interesting in how it attracted a diversity of races and laudable in how it sought to strengthen a sense of community among the races. It was somewhat hampered by a presenter who didn’t listen to the conversation among the races, and where this caused the most problem was in relation to the concept of power. The presenter—who was Latino—thought that do-gooder people don’t like power. They don’t mention it, he said, in their churches. This is when some of the African Americans asserted that in their church, they talk a lot about power—the power of God, say, and God’s ability to empower. The presenter blew past that. And he insisted that we don’t like power, because we’re afraid of failure. He also said that the vast majority of us aren’t powerful at all. He then went on to his next bullet point—and I, for one, stopped taking notes. 

At this point, I could hare off on a tangent about bad teaching—but I won’t. (I won’t, I won’t.) Instead, I’d like to return to the conversation the presenter squelched. I can’t speak for other races—and I won’t attempt to. But I would like to suggest that the reason white people like me hesitate to talk about power, is because we have so much of it. This man said that I, as an individual, am not powerful. And he’s right. As a squatty fortysomething from a small city, I’ve got nothing. I spoke my outrage to the governor last month. She lied to my face, and walked away. 

But let’s not kid ourselves. As a white, straight, affluent Protestant I have all the power in the country. Maybe all the power in the world. I am female. So I guess this ties one limb behind my back. But if I may speak for the whiteys who seek to be good citizens, I’ll say that the reason we don’t talk about power in our churches is because we know we use our power to oppress. We do it without trying. Saturday’s meeting took place in an African-American church. All the white people sat in the front, and all the black people sat in the back. All the white people, who wanted to combat racism, sat in the front of a church where they were the guests. We didn’t even think about it.

I suggest that maybe we should. And I mean that we should think in two different directions. The first is the way about which we’re self-conscious—the fact, for example, that we felt empowered to take the prime seating in a neighbor’s house. This is the kind of privilege that embarrasses us—and rightfully so. The other way we should think about power is to recognize that just because we do bad things with power doesn’t mean that power is bad in itself. Our privilege is unfair. We have come to our position by standing on the deaths of millions. But privilege also has vantage. It has resources. It has immunities. Privilege allowed me to walk up to the governor. Privilege lets me go to the front lines of a protest, and not worry so much that I’ll get put in a chokehold (or worse). In Iowa, my race enjoys an incarceration rate that 1/11 of what my black neighbors endure. It’s wrong to ignore that. And it might be doubly wrong if we don’t use that privilege to benefit our neighbors.

My suggestion is that although we should never act as if we deserve our power, we should pick it up. We should present it to our neighbors, in the way of trying (but not ever succeeding) to return something we took from them. And then we should leave it at the cause’s best disposal.

(Originally posted May 12, 2018)

Honest Answer to the Race Question

At yesterday’s community meeting, I heard an interesting thing. Somebody asked a white minister if he was racist. The answer was something I like, even though I’ve since modified it somewhat. It goes like this:

I am part of a racist community, but I try not to be racist. Still, because I know that I am tainted by this community, I will try not to become defensive when you show me ways that I am racist.

(Originally posted May 6, 2018)

Incarceration Ratio

 US News and World Report named Iowa the best state in the country. Our governor is all about this. And I too love Iowa, with its farms and its schools and its space. I especially love Iowa City, which Livibility ranked as the #2 most livable town in the country, and which UNESCO ranks as one of the most literary settlements in the world. But here’s something few people mention. (I’ve quoted it from my church’s bulletin): “The Sentencing Project, which compiles state-level criminal justice data from a variety of sources, tells us that the racial disparity in incarceration rates for black and white U.S. residents in the state of Iowa is 11.1:1” 

After further research through the Sentencing Project, I’ve learned that the national sentencing average of black males vs. white males is 6:1. (I don’t know about females–but I assume the ratio is comparable.)

None of these stats is good, of course. But it’s clear that Iowa–that abolitionist bastion–has a problem.

(Originally posted April 15, 2018)

Terminology

Raceriotism: 1. The practice of passing off one’s disgust for one segment of the population as love for the country that most of said population was born in. 2. The tendency to extend such practice into public gatherings, while wielding tiki torches and other yard implements, in hopes of starting mob violence against the target population. 3. (Rare) The occasional but irresistible urge to use words, during even serious conversations, that allow one to sound like Scooby Doo.

(Originally posted October 9, 2017)

Giving Them the Knee

I wonder how long it will take for protesting athletes to decide–en masse–that they’re just not going to take the field. They’ve gone on strike for pay disputes. They could easily declare that this is far more important. Imagine whole groups of people refusing to play while other folks are dying. Imagine them saying no to a country that uses them for entertainment while it kills their brethren. Think of this resistance seeping into Hollywood, or finance, or infrastructure. Let’s see what actually happens if racism gets its wish, and all the blacks and their allies disappear from the country.

You think it’s upsetting when somebody kneels for the national anthem? What I think is that you’re really afraid. You’re frightened–as you’ve always been frightened–of the people you oppress. And the reason is not the one you assign to your fear. It isn’t because “these people” are barbaric, or violent, or even disrespectful. It’s because your country has been all of those things to them–and furthermore, it’s because their mounting imperative to resist comes from God-given, human dignity.

(Originally posted October 20, 2016)

The Jaws of the Great White Guilt

I need to walk a particularly fine line here, and I hope you’ll indulge me if I slip off from time to time. I would like to discuss white, male guilt. I’ve thought of this for a long time, and I’ve decided that too much of such a thing is destructive. (You can scroll away now, and I will never know. You can also disagree with me, and I’ll be happy to talk.) 

I will be the first to say that, as a group, white males have a lot to answer for. Somehow they got the might and the position to benefit from centuries of atrocity. The momentum of that depravity will take centuries to stop—and that’s because there persist those who fight to defend the white patriarchy, by, for example, vowing to Make America Great Again. Black lives most certainly matter, and we all have work to do. That said, however, I think that an excess of white, male guilt actually helps to feed the patriarchist’s cause.

I love a lot of good-hearted, progressively-minded, white men. My life is teeming with them. But ever since my years at Oberlin, these men have seen fit to debase their demographic. They target not just white, rich men. Not just white, conservative men. But white men as a mass, whom they call ignorant at best, and sheet-wearing at worst—who, as a group, apparently need to be taken down, silenced, or at least corrected. According to my college friends, this white man becomes a part of our national problems, simply by virtue of being white. And the tragedy here is that the rest of us require the white man to be part of the solution.

I just read an article by a black woman who was trying to explain white privilege to a white friend, “First, of all,” she said, “nobody’s mad at you for being white.” So please, let’s try to internalize this. Guilt, by itself, can become an excuse. This is in part because people mistake it for penitence. Society finds a man guilty, and it renders him inert for a set amount of time. But when a church—or whoever—addresses the penitent sinner, it prescribes action. If you feel guilty for what you’ve inherited or enacted, you will help no one by hating yourself or your brethren. That’s a waste of energy. And frankly, it’s self-indulgent.

Every progressive movement needs support from the ruling class. This is in part because the ruling class has social clout—and it’s also because the non-oppressed have more power, by having less skin in the fight. Whether it’s fair or not, this outsider status makes them appear more objective. Progressive, white males need to aid those with whom they ally by empowering themselves to act on the minority’s behalf. This stance doesn’t grow from patriarchy; it doesn’t act *for* another. Instead it acts *with* a group who deserves everyone’s own best effort.

And here’s another thing: If, as a self-ashamed white man, you get too vocal about how you hate who you are, you play right into the white patriarchist’s hands. If you talk about “shutting up the white man,” or “putting him in his place,” you give the Trump-ass all the license to point to you as evidence of the Coming War™. Don’t talk like that. Defeat an ignorance, or a social pattern, or a campaign—but don’t say you’re going to stick it to Mr. Whitey. You say that to a patriarchist, and he’ll be gratified. You say that to me, and I’ll think of all the white men I know, and call it prejudiced.

And that’s because it is prejudiced. It assigns a single agenda to hundreds of millions of people. It dismisses their potential for good and their desire to help. Before I left for North Dakota, a friend rightly corrected me for assuming that the Sioux are all of one mind about the oil pipeline. First of all, there are many tribes under the Sioux name. And secondly there are many divisions among the tribes. Apparently they even differ about whether they want to be called Indian or Native American. We liberals accept all this correction readily enough—so why not accept it about ourselves? Certainly the Standing Rock tribes have extended that courtesy to me. Very few of them see me, and assume that I’m on the side of the bulldozers. They let me help—and they don’t expect me to hate myself while doing it.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. This isn’t my best writing—in part because I have so little distance from the material. White men have done terrible things. They may need help in seeing how they’ve been harmful. But as both a group and as individuals, they are capable of wonderful, even necessary, things. If you are a white man, please don’t be so prejudiced against yourself. No prejudice is helpful. As soon as you say that no good can rise from any group of people, along will come a Samaritan.

(Originally posted October 10, 2016)

How I Reached My Decision to Support Clinton Over Sanders

Once when I was a delegate at my church’s national convention, I was randomly picked to sit on a committee that would recommend a resolution on the major topic of the year. This topic had to do with church representation at the national offices, and the issue’s champions believed that people of color were not receiving as much voice as everyone else. My church is very sensitive to inequality; this was a serious concern. What complicated matters, in part, was that addressing the issue in the way the champions called for would cause major restructuring of our representational process. Still, I did research; I was ready to upset the apple cart. But then, as the convention rolled on, people of color would approach me, and they would say, “Please don’t vote to change the process. Please understand that this issue is raised by a vocal minority among a larger minority. Please do what the majority of us wants, and find another way.”

I was amazed. But what could I do? My conscience told me to vote according to what was best for people of color—and that meant I had to listen to the majority of those folks. Who was I to say I knew more than they, about an issue that most impacted them? Who was I to override their wishes? I voted to put down the minority’s resolution. And with the help of many other people, my side of the vote won the day. In reaction to the election results, the minority disrupted the rest of the convention with songs and chants. Nobody felt very good about anything. But I still feel that I did the right—if not perfect— thing. 

Ten years later, when most of our country’s minority voters caucused for Clinton, I drew on this same experience. I listened to the majority of my brethren who receive the most damage from institutional racism. I figured they knew best, and I backed their candidate. It was all I could do.

(Originally posted July 27, 2016)