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Monday, June 22, 2015

Not in the Stars But In Ourselves

Nine persons shot to death in the historic African Methodist Episcopal “Mother Emanuel” church of Charleston, South Carolina in the midst of a Bible study. That news reverberated with devastating force throughout that historic city, through the state and quickly as part of our national news scene in this past week. Many of us felt the tragedy personally and with evident grief. 

With a heavy heart, President Obama reminded us that this was the 14th time he has addressed us about senseless mass killings.  He refused to accept this kind of event as a new norm. That burden which the President has carried on our behalf has certainly served to awaken many of us to the reality of domestic terrorism that we are experiencing. And it recalled in me as well, the unrelenting suffering of the families of the victims of this shooting and of all those that preceded this incident. Along with many others, I mourn the loss of these unique and special people who were on a journey of commitment to a God they revered, whose Love they attempted in their own way to emulate and to imitate through their thank-full lives.

I think it must also be said that the victims’ families have given us all a unique experience of what it means to “live the Gospel.” With this tragedy just a very few days old, many of them appeared in court to speak to the killer about their loss and the sorrow inflicted upon them by his actions. But then, out of the depth of their faith, several declared their forgiveness and wished for him a godly mercy that in most cases would be the last thing many under similar circumstances would want or would ever express.

We have been historic witnesses to something beyond our normal comprehension: the killing of nine innocent people out of racial hate, and the unfettered forgiveness offered to that same killer by family members of the victims. Both are extraordinary actions, but wholly contradictory in their nature. The actions of the family members symbolize and epitomize what Christianity was meant to be: a reversal of chaos; a new creation; a realm of redeeming actions, not the burdening of people with restrictions and limits and doctrinal manipulations, and certainly not the repository of enmity toward others.

It is all too human to want to know what motivates others; or what hidden meaning lies beneath our human tragedies. That quest has energized theologians, playwrights, songwriters, novelists, filmmakers, musicians, and plain everyday folk throughout our existence. We cannot seem to advance to another level of understanding of ourselves and others without this question being answered whenever our normality or our comfort zone, our beliefs or our institutions take a direct hit by an incomprehensible event, and we ask: WHY?

Speculation then abounds: Was it a mental illness that motivated this man? Was it the devil? Did he experience something bad in childhood that has damaged him? Does he have a genetic disposition toward violence? Did his parents have anything to do with his behavior? We often say or read that had someone acted sooner, it might have been prevented, meaning that the shooter most often has a record of disturbance, or aberrant behavior, or anti-social acts that should have been a clue to the need for earlier intervention. But somehow, the clues are missed, the early intervention never happened, and the shooter is often dismissed as mentally deranged.

It seems that the opportunity for politicians to pontificate is never missed.
Even politicians who have no intention of ever voting to curb gun violence get in on the act, expressing condolences to the victims’ families and loved ones, or perhaps expressing their concerns about mental health, expansion of law enforcement or the devastation to community, or the heart-brokenness they perceive in their constituency. They promise that their city, region or state will come back from this particular tragedy with renewed vigor and awareness, or whatever they may need to impress upon the voters at the moment. Community unity and resolve seem to be most favored.

But, there are other thoughts and theories that have begun to emerge as media and pundits and pinheads take side-roads on their flight to ignore the very real reason for this shooting, preferring to call it an “accident” as has former Texas Governor Rick Perry; or an attack upon “Christianity” as did Senator Lindsay Graham. They deserve nothing but short shrift in their lack of plausibility and reality.

Just when was it that S.C. Governor Nikki Haley or Senator Lindsey Graham ever proposed a plan to prevent such tragedies? Has either of them supported legislation to expand background checks for gun purchasers? Has either of them expanded the scope of mental health programs or personnel to specifically address early intervention when signs and symptoms of mental disturbances appear in children and teenagers? Has either of them even suggested that the concealed carry laws of their state could result in tragedies like this? Or that gun ownership laws outlawing the giving or loaning of a gun to a child or teenager would be helpful in preventing some of these tragic shootings? Not on your life (nor anyone else’s for that matter).

These South Carolina Republicans (see more on their records at www.ontheissues.org), and others like them, have too often supported legislation that demeans the status of certain people in their state. In doing so, they give credence to the concepts and prejudices of people like Dylann Roof and add to a societal climate in which domestic terrorism is accepted as the new norm, and racial hatred as an acceptable standard that they prefer to leave unaddressed and unspoken.

Notwithstanding, let us now focus our attention on the one overriding factor and defining answer to WHY this person named Dylann Roof did what he did. If early reports are creditable, he may have had second thoughts about carrying through because of the kind treatment and welcome he received from those present in the study group, but after about an hour, he made his move and began shooting. There have been some reports that he mentioned that he was carrying out a “mission,” (to start a “race war”) which to some has indicated the possibility of following orders or a directive. It has a lot to do with our political climate and with what politicians at all levels say and do in their deliberations.

However, the fault lies ensconced in more than politics and its environment. A phrase keeps running through my head: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Act 1, Scene 2, Page 6:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves…”

A writer for the Daily Kos may have had similar thoughts as he de-cried attempts to back away from the primary motive behind these killings.

Say something, anything, against the white supremacist beliefs that motivated this sad young man to go into a house of prayer and kill innocent people because of the color of their skin, and because of hate he learned from people who proudly worship the Confederate flag.
Nikki Haley and her ilk need to own up to what they have done and are doing to feed and strengthen and encourage stomach-turning nostalgia for the days when black folks were bought and sold, tortured at will, raped and forced to bear their rapists' children, and generally treated as unworthy of human dignity.
Nikki Haley and her ilk need to own up to what they have done and are doing to continue the Jim Crow traditions of preventing black folks from having fair access to education and jobs and health care and housing and voting.
I am bone weary of doubletalk by R(epublican) cons and their mouthpieces using carefully chosen words today to try to condemn the shooter and the killings while ignoring the racist culture that inspired him.” (NYT)

As very difficult as it may be, we cannot avoid the white supremacy that motivated the shooter to overcome his second thoughts and to proceed with his “plan.” The force of racial hatred overwhelmed all other possible contributing factors. This young man was a white supremacist who intentionally killed African-Americans, pure and simple. He had a mission and a plan, and he carried them through to the bitter end. He may well be a “domestic terrorist” as is any group or organization that puts hate forward as its mission and killing innocent human beings as its purpose. We don’t know whether he belonged to an organized white supremacist organization, but the very society in which he lives trains us all in hate and prejudice and bigotry, and we not only ignore it, we deny it as well. In fact the “boo-birds” have probably already emerged to deny and emasculate that last statement. But now that it is out in the open, let us explore an article which puts it in terms all should be able to understand and even appreciate.

A reporter/writer named Joan Olsson, who holds three doctorates and has been studying and working on antiracism for over 20 years, has written a piece called “Detour Spotting” that spells out for us how societal education takes place and how it keeps white people in charge and in power. Let her speak to you about the most ignored and most volatile issue in American politics and American society today (as it was in yesteryear). [All emphases are mine].

For white people living in North America learning to be antiracist is a reeducation process. We must unlearn our thorough racist conditioning to reeducate and recondition ourselves as antiracists. There is scant social or political encouragement for this journey of reeducation. We are constantly tempted to detour off course by the racist propaganda of society and our own guilt and denial… to continue this journey takes bold and stubborn effort.

No white person has ever lived in a non-racist North America. We were never taught the skills of antiracist living. Indeed, we were carefully taught the opposite: how to maintain our white privilege. Racism, the system of oppression (of people of color) and advantage (for white people) depends on the collusion and cooperation of white people for its perpetuation.
“Most of us first became aware of racial prejudice and injustice as children. As white infants we were fed a pabulum of racist propaganda. That early "training" was comprehensive and left little room for question, challenge or doubt. Our childhood games, rhymes and media conspired: "Eenie, meenie, minie, mo; Catch a n...r by his toe..." We played cowboys and Indians. All of us knew the Indians were bad and had to die. “Black” was equated with dirt, bad moods and attitudes, a family miscreant, denigration and rejection (as in being black-balled); with evil and with death.

“As Lillian Smith acknowledged: ‘These ceremonials in honor of white supremacy, performed from babyhood, slip from the conscious mind down deep into muscles and glands and become difficult to tear out.’ Our generous child wisdom told us racism was wrong, but there was no escaping the daily racist catechism. We internalized our beliefs about people of color…and about being white. Those internalized attitudes became actualized into racist behavior.

As I continue my journey toward becoming a reconditioned and effective antiracist, I have become aware of ‘habits,’ attitudes and their attached behaviors, which divert me from my intended goal.

“To change the detouring behavior, I must first be fully conscious of what I'm doing, the behavior and its consequences. Next, I need to reflect on the behavior's attitudinal roots. Finally, I determine the prescribed, desired change I want to make and the best strategy for achieving it. Sometimes I need to remove the behavior from my personal repertoire. More often though, retooling is necessary, replacing the discarded pattern with new behaviors. It will likely take repeated attempts before I have fully internalized and externalized the desired change.

“Most of the obstacles and detours encountered on our journey of reeducation are those same habitual behaviors birthed in our internalized beliefs. The behaviors will vary with each white person because no two white people share exactly the same experiences and societal moldings. We learned racism in our unique and personal ways from different teachers and at different times. But, we all learned the lessons well. I have observed in myself and other white people some common patterns of guilt, denial and defensiveness which appear regularly in our interactions with people of color and other white people.”[Although Olsson identifies eighteen common detours from her antiracist journey, I have narrowed the field somewhat]

1) I’m Colorblind.
“People are just people; I don’t see color.” Statements like this assume that people of color, in order to be validated, must be seen as just like us: white, with the same dreams, standards, problems, peeves that we have.

But “Colorblindness” negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color. It also ignores their experience of racism and our experience of privilege. “I’m colorblind” can also be an excuse for being afraid or reluctant to discuss racism. Color consciousness does not equal racism.

2) The Rugged Individual and the Bootstrap Theory
“America is the land of opportunity, built by rugged individuals, where anyone with grit and determination can succeed if they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

These are two of the crown jewels of U.S. social propaganda. The actual reality, of course, is that few really ever make it into the less than 1% of very successful and very rich elite. But the two nuggets persist and enable each generation to say: “If you succeed, YOU did that, but if you fail, or if you’re poor, that’s your fault.”

“Belief in this propaganda is founded in a total denial of the impact of either oppression or privilege on any person’s chance for success.”

3) Reverse Racism
“Affirmative Action” (or the Civil Rights Movement) had a role years ago, but today it’s just reverse racism; now it’s discriminating against white men (and the civil rights movement is likewise no longer working for equality but for revenge or reparation).

The author takes time at this point to define racial prejudice as something both races possess, after all a person of color or a white person can act on their social conditioning to insult or hurt one another. People of color can act out of a personal prejudice against white people.

But, she maintains, personal prejudice and racism are two different concepts and social constructs.
In order to be racist, one race must have the ability as part of a social group to control or oppress the other race or group. “People of color do not have the societal, institutional power to oppress white people as a group. Therefore, to say people of color can be racist denies the power imbalance inherent in systemic, institutional and organized racism.

White people have the political, systemic and institutional power and they are therefore the guardians and the purveyors of society’s institutionalized racism. To say otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of racism. The playing field is not yet level because the white power establishment is doing everything it can to maintain the power and control it has always possessed.

4) Blame the Victim
“We have advertised everywhere, there just aren’t any qualified people of color for this job.” OR:
“She uses racism as an excuse to divert us from her incompetence.” OR:
“If he only had a stronger work ethic.”

All ‘blame the victim’ behaviors have two things in common. First they evade the real problem: racism. Second they delete from the picture the agents of racism: white people and institutions which intentionally perpetuate or unintentionally collude with racism. As long as the focus remains on people of color we can minimize or dismiss their reactions and never have to look at our own responsibility or collusion with racism.

5) Innocent By Association
“I’m not racist because I have black friends” OR: “I marched with Dr. King.”

This detour from reality wrongly equates personal interactions with people of color with anti-racism. It assumes that our personal associations free us magically from our racist conditioning. They don’t.

6) The White Knight or White Missionary
“We (white people) know just where to build your new community center.”

It is a racist, paternalistic assumption that well-meaning white people know what’s best for people of color, and it implies that people of color are incapable of making their own decisions. Once more the power of self-determination is taken from people of color as though the only appropriate solutions lie with white people. Regardless of motive, it is all about white control.

7) The Isolationist

“I thought we resolved this issue (racism) when it came before the Board last year.” OR:
“We need to deal with this specific incident. Don’t complicate it by bringing up irrelevant incidences of the past.”

Attempts are made to isolate a particular incident of racism from its larger context and to avoid facing the reality of a pattern of racism within our organization or society. We often see incidents in a vacuum, or as an aberration in isolation from an historic pattern of racism. But Racism has been so institutionalized that every “incident” is another symptom of the pattern. “If we continue to react incident to incident, crisis to crises, as though they are unconnected, we will find genuine resolution only further from our reach.”

Several of the politicians mentioned above have attempted to do just what is described here: to isolate this particular shooting at Mother Emanuel Church from other shootings and events that are connected by the pattern of racism that they represent. This is exactly why Rick Perry tried to isolate this incident as an “accident,” and Lindsey Graham defined it as an “attack on Christians” -- so that it would not fit the pattern of racial attacks of the recent past (or of the distant past).

8) Bending Over Backwards
“Of course I agree with you” (said to a black person even when one disagrees)

We don’t criticize, disagree, challenge or question Black people the way we would other white people, or we don’t do it with the same conviction or intensity. “Our racism plays out as a different standard for people of color.” If this is a pattern, then one can “never have a genuine relationship with a person of color. We cannot grow to a deeper level of trust and intimacy with people of color we treat in this way.”

9) Teach Me, Please
“I want to stop acting like a racist, so please tell me when I do something you think is racist.”

White people too often assume we can learn about racism only from people of color, and further assume that people of color have the energy and/or desire to do this teaching. Her understanding is that most people of color are weary of educating white people about racism. Maybe white folks should seek help first from other white anti-racists. We can’t just assume that people of color should be so grateful for our attempts at learning about racism, that they will be willing to guide us whenever we are ready to be guided. Teaching should be at the discretion of people of color.

10) Certificate of Innocence

“Sometimes we seek or expect from people of color some public or private recognition and appreciation for our anti-racism. Other times we look for a certificate of innocence to tell us we are one of the good white people.”

If our ally commitment depends on positive reinforcement from people of color, we set ourselves up for failure. The first time that any displeasure with our actions is expressed, we could respond, “Well, if the people I’m doing all this for don’t want my help, then why bother. I quit.”

Clearly, we are challenging racism “for them” not for us. “Until we acknowledge a self-interest as white people in challenging racism, we will not stay on this lifelong journey.

11) Silence

Silence is complicated. It may be a product of guilt, of not wanting to disappoint other people, a fear of losing a privilege or a fear of violent reciprocity from other white people. Silence can be a good strategy at times, but more often, it represents a lost opportunity to act on behalf of anti-racism. Silence is too often the precursor to lack of action taken.

Return with me to the President’s speech. He decried the pattern. He showed the burden of the pattern. He decried the inaction of the Congress. He identified the issue of gun violence as one of the primary answers to WHY these things happen. But he did not deal forcefully with the underlying issue of white supremacy or of institutional racism. He shouldn’t have to.

It’s our responsibility, black and white, rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged alike. Racism is not simply a civil rights issue for a minority within a white power structure. It is a fundamental problem with our whole society, affecting all of our people, because in a democracy, based on interdependence and mutual responsibility, when one group is targeted for discrimination, the whole premise of equal justice is undermined. When one group is denigrated, castigated and seen as inferior, the whole premise of equality is damaged. When one individual of a denigrated minority is singled out for actions contrary to law, the civil and unalienable rights of all are put in jeopardy. We cannot proclaim exceptionality when every day brings another example of the pattern of racism to the forefront.

We have allowed a malignancy to eat at the foundations of our society, our institutions and our Constitutional government from the very beginning through to the present. It was built into our Constitution. It has been maintained by a white power structure that has rarely dealt unequivocally with it.

White people do have a personal self-interest in life-long engagement in recognizing and fighting racism in every aspect of our common life because the integrity of our proclamations and actions in regard to human rights faces disdain and rejection in other parts of the world, and because the very survival of our democratic values and standards is at stake. If we are who we say we are, then we must begin to learn a new language and new behaviors that authenticate true equality and justice for all. We must join in interracial dialogue and action so that we can reject and overcome white supremacy and build anti-racism as integral to the American Way.