Conscience Has No Color

A flag in Vermont reminds us conscience has no color

Originally published February 4, 2018 by Leonard Pitts Jr., Syndicated columnist.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

Except it’s not really failure. It’s actually unwillingness to communicate, fear of what communication might mean. After all, if you communicate, you might understand some painful truths — and then where would you be?

That’s why discussing race with a white person is often one of the most vexing things an African-American person can do. You quickly come to understand that understanding is the last thing they want.

Take “Black Lives Matter.” Those words, if you are black, are both an assertion of self-evident truth and a way of saying you are sick of unarmed people like you being killed under color of authority while juries and judges shrug and look away.

That message would seem to be clear as mountain air, which, for many white Americans, is precisely what’s wrong with it. So they do everything they can not to comprehend.

They pretend confusion: “Black lives matter? Don’t all lives matter? Are you saying black lives are more important?”

They rationalize: “It’s not the cop’s fault. If the man had stopped moving/talking/breathing hard, he wouldn’t have been shot!”

They feign outrage: “Black Lives Matter is an anti-police terrorist group. They’re the black Ku Klux Klan.”

At some point, you begin wondering if the words you hear in your head are coming out in English. How is it you’re both speaking the same language, but you’re doing such a miserable job of being understood?

It’s a frustrating, exhausting experience. If you’ve ever had it, you’ll likely be touched by a recent story out of Vermont. It seems that, with the unanimous support of the school board, the Racial Justice Alliance, a student-led anti-racism group at Montpelier High, is commemorating Black History Month by flying a flag on campus. A flag that says, “Black Lives Matter.”

Lord, have mercy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all.

It’s stunning, you see, because there are no black people in Vermont.

OK, so that’s not quite true. There are some, but so few — 1.3 percent out of a population of 623,000 — that Vermont didn’t muster its first NAACP chapter until 2015. For the record, the student who founded the Racial Justice Alliance is a black senior named Joelyn Mensah. Still, we’re talking about one of the whitest states in the Union. So this flag flying at one of its schools is no small thing.

Not that everyone is pleased. State lawmaker Thomas Terenzini — you’ll be shocked to learn that he’s a Republican — told the local NBC affiliate that Black Lives Matter is “a national anti-police organization.”

That isn’t surprising. But the moral courage of these students and administrators is, pleasantly so.

We are indebted to them for a message that couldn’t be more timely. As appeals to our lowest selves flow down like sewage from the nation’s capital, they remind us that conscience has no color. It is a point proven in the past by white people like Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Andrew Goodman, James Zwerg, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Viola Liuzzo who fought — and sometimes died — for black freedom.

One hopes white people of today will take note. And black ones, too.

Because, for as much as that flag flying in that place speaks to the broad sweep of conscience, it also rebukes excesses of cynicism, shows what can still happen just when you think you’ve seen it all. To be black talking to white people about race is never easy. You’ll be frequently frustrated, often exhausted. But once in a while, you will also be something you never expected:

Heard.

 

 

The Whitest City in America

Portland, Oregon. Thought of by most as especially hip and progressive. We’re indebted to Alana Semuels for scratching well below the surface. She starts strong in her piece about the city’s racist history:

Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.

Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.

“They have all complained about being treated poorly because of their race,” Morrell told me. “It’s a sad story—it’s pretty ugly on the floor there.” (Daimler said it could not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman David Giroux said that the company prohibits discrimination and investigates any allegations of harassment.)

The allegations may seem at odds with the reputation of this city known for its progressivism. But many African Americans in Portland say they’re not surprised when they hear about racial incidents in this city and state. That’s because racism has been entrenched in Oregon, maybe more than any state in the north, for nearly two centuries. When the state entered the union in 1859, for example, Oregon explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders, the only state to do so. In more recent times, the city repeatedly undertook “urban renewal” projects (such as the construction of Legacy Emanuel Hospital) that decimated the small black community that existed here. And racism persists today. A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.

All in all, historians and residents say, Oregon has never been particularly welcoming to minorities. Perhaps that’s why there have never been very many. Portland is the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2 percent white and only 6.3 percent African American.

Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

African-American PerspectiveS on Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments

Once, while I was teaching at a Southern college, African-American student leaders attended a faculty meeting to explain some of their frustrations with us, including some faculty’s expectations that individual black students speak on behalf of African-Americans more generally. Ten years later, in the coffee obsessed upper left-hand corner of the country, a student of mine pressed a classmate to explain the black perspective on the topic at hand. I intervened and explained why “She doesn’t have to answer that.” After class she thanked me for the time out.

Following the release of Do the Right Thing, I remember watching an interviewer pressing Spike Lee to explain the meaning of contrasting MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes at the film’s conclusion. He sidestepped the question, saying that film is art, and therefore open to different interpretations. I could tell he resented the question, probably thinking most filmmakers wouldn’t have been asked it.

Three refreshingly different African-American opinion leaders’ reactions to Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin serve as an excellent reminder that there’s more diversity within ethnic groups as there is between them. Seems like a simple point, but it’s often lost on people. Consider each.

1) Tavis Smiley, Sunday on Meet the Press, after previously tweeting, “Obama’s speech was weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.”

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But … he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.

2) Charles Ogletree, National Public Radio:

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I’ve ever heard him make in the 25 years I’ve known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal . . .

3) Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post:

The designation ‘first black (fill in the blank)’ always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s. . . is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Near the end of his comments, Obama encouraged people to think about whether they are “wringing as much bias out” of themselves as possible. Borrowing from King, he suggested asking, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

One element of “content of character” thinking is acknowledging, if not embracing, intellectual diversity within ethnic groups.

Three Things I Don’t Understand About the Election

1) Why isn’t anyone describing it as historic? Granted, President Obama’s victory in 08 was more groundbreaking, but it’s as if the historic nature of this accomplishment is lost on the chattering class. President Obama’s election in 2008 made it more likely we’ll see a series of non-white male and female candidates from this point forward. His reelection makes that even more certain.

2) I understand why many on the right despise President Obama’s policies. Reasonable people can disagree about the optimal size of government, the strengths and limits of free markets, and how best to provide healthcare, strengthen the economy, and conduct foreign relations, but why are so many conservative critiques of Obama petty, personal, even pathetic?

Exhibits A and B from consecutive comments attached to an election article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Charlene Larson, who assumed Romney would win (in response to another commenter): You’re right, of course. Obama will go back to doing the only thing he’s a success at: creating a racial divide. He will try to undermine the Romney administration. He will violate the gentleman’s agreement that states no past president will speak ill of his successor. Because he’s no gentleman. He’s a bitter, delusional child. Michael Bukowski in response: I believe Charlene is rightly referring to the fact that not once in his Presidency has Obama ever acted like a grown man (see: leader). He does nothing but complain about what he “inherited.”

I’m not in the habit of accusing anyone of racism, let alone faceless names in a paper, but given the nature of Larson’s and Bukowski’s attacks, the onus is on them to prove they’re not racist. My conservative friends will accuse me of selective perception, correctly pointing out that some liberal ideologues routinely criticized “W” in ways that were also petty, personal, and at times pathetic. For example, making fun of the times he misspoke, jokingly labeling them “Bushisms”, the suggestion being he wasn’t nearly intelligent enough to govern. Certainly, some leftist ideologues demonstrated elitism and arrogance, but racism? A pox on anyone that hasn’t outgrown the grade school playground.

Exasperated with his incessant personal attacks on the President, I asked a close conservative friend whether his criticism was motivated in part by race. He said he’d vote for Walter Williams in a heartbeat. Nice return of serve, but still, the onus is on those whose attacks are especially personal to prove they’re not racist. I won’t hold my breath.

3) When will Republicans come to grips with changing demographics, embrace immigration reform, and seriously contend for nonwhite voters? An illuminating sentence from yesterday Wall Street Journal, “Romney thinks his path to victory is to win 61 percent of white voters as long as white voters comprise 74 percent of the vote—and the Obama camp agrees.” Add age into this mix. People between 18-44 tilted heavily for the President. As long as Republicans slight young Hispanic and African-American voters, sell your Republican stock.

Mental File Folders

Social psychologists suggest our brains are filled with mental file folders of sort that enable us to take short cuts when bumping into or first interacting with people. Labels such as male, female, rich, poor, overweight, African-American, professor, Wall Street banker, southerner, foreigner, libertarian, conservative republican, liberal democrat, elderly, homeless, aspergers, gay, lesbian, environmentalist, evangelical Christian. We also have thinner files that might be (awkwardly) labeled, “male, conservative republican, evangelical Christian”.

Without our mental file folders, we’d have to make sense of each new person from scratch; consequently, we’d be too overwhelmed to function normally.

The question though is how thick are our respective folders? In our increasingly diverse world, we can get into serious trouble when our folders are so thin that we succumb to inaccurate stereotypes. Everyone has preconceived notions about other groups of people. The best antidote for negative preconceived notions is getting to know a wider range of diverse individuals through direct daily experience. Only then can you get a feel for a key cross-cultural insight or sensibility, that the individual differences within each file folder are typically greater than between them.

Our challenge as multicultural people is to do two things simultaneously, to recognize that there are group patterns, themes, and differences, and to recognize that the individual differences within each group are usually greater than the differences between groups. There’s lots of evidence that not everyone is up to this relatively sophisticated, multitasking, social psychological balancing act.

Fast forward to Thursday night’s training ride with about thirty other cyclists. Early on, heading out-of-town, I was spinning casually in the back (like Lance Armstrong) when a new rider introduced himself. At 20mph we talked for the next ten minutes. A military officer with about 20 years experience. Our worldviews couldn’t have been more different. We discussed drones in Afghanistan, the McChrystal firing, and his work more generally.

I’m about as dovish as they come and he was all hawk. I was unpleasantly surprised by his “I sleep well at night” lack of introspection. Cue the “military personnel” folder. Fortunately in that folder are a few “pieces of paper” representing the marines I met while teaching in Ethiopia. They were based at the US embassy and would travel to our school to hoop it up with us once or twice a week. We became friends. They invited a few of us to the embassy in the middle of the night to watch the World Series, and without knowing it, they helped me rethink my preconceived notions of military personnel.

So I’m adding my new cycling acquaintance to my “military personnel” folder, but not overgeneralizing about all military personnel based upon my admittedly brief interaction with him.