We are better than this

dog whistleThose of us who dabble in the occasional do-it-yourself project eventually learn a few ‘rules of the road’, so to speak. We know that you should always “Measure twice, cut once” and “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, you’re not using enough duct tape”. And then there’s the one about the old man who explained to his grandson why he had so many tools: “If the women don’t find you handsome, they’ll at least find you handy”.

The key to a job well done is having the right tools and knowing how to use them. To build my column, my tools are my words. It makes sense to know which ones are right for the task. For this one, the important words are not pleasant but are certainly getting a lot of work these days.


Here’s where things get ugly

First, let’s flip through the pages of our handy dictionary and get a clear sense of the differences of three key terms: bigotry, prejudice, and racism. Now, each of these words can be used to attack based on a person’s words, thoughts, or actions. It isn’t my intention to single out anyone here, but to get a better sense of how we can define and understand the world we live in.

According to Merriam-Webster, bigotry is ‘obstinate or intolerant devotion to one’s own opinions and prejudices’. Words like narrow-minded or intolerant come to mind. People with a “my way or the highway” attitude could easily be described as a bigot, but general usage of the term seems to be much more harsh.

Prejudice is ‘preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge’. To me, that sounds like what you get with the previously mentioned bigot who makes up his mind without bothering to check his facts.

And then there’s the big word that is bouncing around in many current events discussions these days: racism. The language experts describe it as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’. That’s some serious heavy lifting in a single sentence, so let’s see if we can expand on that a bit.


Truth isn’t always comfortable

In his book “Portraits of White Racism”, David Wellman defined racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. He went on to explain, “Race is still a deadly serious category in America; how one is designated racially profoundly affects the experience of being an American.” That is, how society – and especially, how government – defines you is a primary force in determining how much of your inalienable rights are available for you to enjoy.

Paula Rothenberg, in her study “Race, Class, and Gender in the United States”, writes: “Racial prejudice when combined with social power… leads to the institutionalization of racist policies and practices.” In other words, if you choose leaders who have strong personal opinions about people of different ethnic backgrounds and they use their position of power to negatively affect the lives of others, you are contributing to a society fueled by racism.

In 1970, Patricia Bidol-Padva wrote that racism is “prejudice plus power”. It’s important to understand that power can be as simple as holding enough influence to affect the outcome of someone else’s actions. Examples would include making hiring decisions or approving a home loan. The greater the power, the more opportunity to derail the lives of others.

Our legal system has a mottled history with race; one only has to consider the Jim Crow laws of the not-too-distant past to see how our courts have been unfairly used to disadvantage non-whites. While it’s tempting to say that things are better now, a recent study by the Brennan Center finds that 24 states right now don’t have a single person of color serving as a Supreme Court justice, hardly a true reflection of our nation’s population. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need a mandatory quota system to force diversification. But if our courts are that much out of touch with reality, can we be assured that those justices are as impartial as we expect them to be? 


A matter of choice

Each and every one of us can decide: be driven by feelings of superiority over others who look different, or be accepting of all in spite of those differences. No one is born with hatred, but humans are fast learners. I once sat at a baseball stadium and overheard a young – and clearly drunk – white man shouting his disgust over an African-American umpire’s call of a close play. Turning to one of his buddies, the guy proclaimed, “And that’s why I don’t like black people.” While I’m confident that this belligerent fan isn’t currently serving in office, recent elections have taught us that anything is possible. 

Let me be very clear: a racist can be any color, from any ethnic background, and have any religious belief (or none at all). No particular demographic has exclusive rights to racist thoughts or behaviors. So if I’m pointing fingers here, rest assured. I’m not placing all the blame on one group over another. Systematic hatred of others based on their looks is not limited to one race, and one newspaper column isn’t going to give sufficient space to explain all the reasons for that hatred. 

As a Caucasian male of European descent, I only know what it’s like within my own skin. But I also know that I wasn’t raised to think that I was better than those with different skin tones. And I’m not about to stand in silence while the privileged few try to turn this nation back into a land of oppression.

You see, whether it’s our government using authoritarian means to suppress the rights and privileges of large segments of our population… or it’s the ‘dog-whistle’ catchphrases that pepper the public comments by America’s most prominent political voices…we are seeing prejudice plus power in action. And that, my friends, is racism amplified to the highest volume.


(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald August 1, 2019.)

A flag not worth flying

The evil that happened inside the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church on the evening of June 17th was more than just a lone gunman committing mass murder. Of course, many details surrounding the tragic event are still unknown, and speculating about the things we don’t know could cause us to overlook important facts. Then again, it’s easy to draw conclusions based on the obvious.

The accused killer — I won’t grant him dignity by using his name — has made some fact finding easy. He decided to post his thoughts on race and ethnicity on his own website. Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, this young man aired his disturbed views on Blacks, Jews, and Hispanics… focusing most of his negativity on people of color. Considering that his nine victims were black, it’s tempting to just suggest that he is just another bigot who chose to make his violent fantasies come true. But there’s much more.

In addition to his seething disgust of non-whites, this man wanted to be sure that we all knew another target of his hatred: the United States of America. He wrote about his hate of the American flag and of patriotism in general, and solidified that message with a series of photographs… including one where he is seen holding a burning Stars and Stripes.

But that’s not the only flag he featured.

In several photographs, the accused killer poses with what is commonly known as “The Confederate Flag”. The image that came to mind when you read that phrase is the iconic rebel flag that, while not an official flag of the Confederacy, is modeled after the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s the design seen on everything from the rooftop of the 1969 Dodge Charger of television fame to the decorations used by many Southern rock bands.

It’s also a reminder of a dark era in our nation’s history when many Americans turned their backs on the USA. The Army of Northern Virginia and many other Southern states and military units flew that flag during active hostilities in America’s Civil War. It was a flag meant to rally Confederate soldiers as they entered into battle against troops from the Union… from the United States.

We were taught that the Civil War was Americans fighting against Americans, but that’s misleading. Remember, those battles came about after 11 Southern states and some territorial regions seceded from the USA, forming what they wished to be their own federalized nation. Whether those states found justification within the language of the Constitution is an argument that remains unsettled, and one that we won’t bother to explore here. But what is clear is the intention of the Confederacy and its use of weapons of war to obtain that goal.

So, for a time in the 1860s, we can honestly say that the Confederate States of America was a separate nation… one that was fighting a horrific war with those states that continued to hold true to the USA. We can also honestly say that slavery was a primary motivating factor, though there are bits of truth in the argument that states’ rights was a key. Of course, one of the most prominent of those rights was tied directly to the ownership and forced labor of men, women, and children.

But we’re not here to study history, are we? We’re trying to understand the reasons why a young white man would walk into a historic black church in the city where the Civil War’s first shots were fired… and murder nine people.

Here’s where we have to start using appropriate language. This was not just a mass murder, nor just a hate crime. This was an act of terrorism. The shooter was, and should be treated as, a terrorist. But much of American media… and too many politicians… are afraid to say just that.
Why? After all, the shooter admitted to the police that he wanted to start a race war, so there’s your political connection. And this was a violent act committed in a symbolic place with the desire to cause fear and anguish. And… he had strong emotions against the American flag, while favoring a symbol of a country that once waged war with the USA. So why the hesitation to call him a terrorist?

Wait, you say, that rebel flag isn’t about hate. It’s a symbol of heritage. In a way, that’s true. But it’s a heritage of war, a war fought in no small part over slavery.

You want to express your Southern heritage? How about demonstrating Southern hospitality? Or preparing a feast of fried catfish, red beans and rice, and a pitcher of sweet tea? But not by flying a flag that sends a joint message of racial animosity and disrespect for the Stars and Stripes.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on July 2, 2015.)

Hey, Tennessee! You can’t do that.

Despite being advised by the state’s attorney general (a Republican) that:

“Yes, designating The Holy Bible as the official state book of Tennessee would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution and Article I, § 3, of the Tennessee Constitution, which provides ‘that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.'”

…today the Tennessee state legislature did just that.

Aside from the blatant violation of the state and federal constitutions, here’s an unanswered question:

What version? Christians can’t agree on a single interpretation of the bible — let alone a single denomination — so how can politicians do so?

Yet another waste of time and money… and, of course, unconstitutional. So now the good people of Tennessee will see their hard-earned money wasted when the state has to go to court… and lose.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business

If I should take a notion
To jump into the ocean
‘T ain’t nobody’s bizness if I do

Bessie Smith made that song famous in the Twenties, and singers ranging from Billie Holliday to Hank Williams Jr have offered their own versions over the years, all with the same fairly explicit message: don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Sure, you may be curious about what someone else is doing, but there are limits to your involvement.
Say for example: your next door neighbor hires a contractor for a home improvement project. As long as your own property isn’t affected, your neighbor is under no obligation to provide you with specifics of the plan.
What if your co-worker takes a few days off for medical leave? You might be a bit concerned for his well-being, but you shouldn’t expect him to share the personal details of his diagnosis and treatment.
Or, turn it around. Perhaps you had intended to join a friend on a shopping trip but suddenly had to cancel because you needed to post bail for your brother-in-law. You’d probably not want to talk about such an embarrassing situation.
Clearly these are examples of how people should mind their own beeswax, right? Unless it affects you directly, life is on a need-to-know basis and you don’t need to know. But why do so many people think the opposite is true when it comes to private, intimate relationships?
Later this month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments that may lead to the high court deciding once and for all if same-sex marriages should be legal and recognized by all 50 states. There are opponents who are declaring that such recognition would devalue what is seen as “traditional” marriage between one man and one woman. Similar arguments were made years ago in defense of anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized interracial marriage and intimate relationships, but the Supreme Court rejected those statutes with its ruling in Loving v Virginia in 1967. From that point forward, no state could prevent interracial relationships or marriage. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2000 that Alabama became the last state to remove such laws from its constitution. Loving v Virginia has been cited in some same-sex marriage court cases as a legal precedent, though it’s too early to tell if the nation’s highest court will concur.
Others suggest that the national legalization of same-sex marriage would be a slippery slope ruling, leading to recognized unions of other types. Again, such arguments were made by those wishing to prevent marriages between different races but their predictions have failed to materialize into fact.
Let me be clear: the notion that what two people do within the privacy of their lives together somehow changes the definition of your personal relationship is laughable. If you think that recognition of same-sex marriage will somehow magically cause your own heterosexual union to be worthless… or worth less… then the real discussion should be about why you don’t place more value on your own marriage.
Of course, opponents of same-sex marriage may also point to their religious beliefs as justification. While the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” — guarantees each one of us the freedom to worship as we please, it does not grant us the ability to use such beliefs to infringe upon the rights of others.
On a related note, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law which many say would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] individuals.
In the wake of this law, the backlash against Indiana’s economy has been swift and continues to grow. Companies such as Angie’s List are withdrawing expansion plans; others are threatening to boycott products manufactured in the state.
Many of the same religion-based arguments used in opposition to same-sex marriage are being cited by supporters of the law; most notably, that a person’s strongly-held beliefs should be considered as justification for that person refusing to do business with members of the LGBT community.
I’m sure some readers find what I’m saying here to be unsettling, and I’m sure I’ll be confronted with assorted scriptural references. Trust me, I’ve heard them before. Remember, we’re not talking about whether someone’s personally held religious beliefs are inherently wrong. Rather, we’re looking at how those beliefs can be used to harm others.

Quite a few people seem to be on a never-ending quest to attack those of a difference sexual orientation. I wonder how much good those politicians, pundits, and prominent religious leaders could do if they channeled the same energy into something positive.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on April 2, 2015.)