“Democrats are the REAL racists!”

It is so weird and sad how every Republican person who is bought into the “Democrats are the real racists!” storyline shares the same 3 or 4 tidbits of information as if it’s your first time hearing it and as if there’s not reams of historical evidence either debunking or contextualizing it.

I just need to build a Magic 8-Ball like program to help them with their arguments. Sides would include:

  • Robert Byrd
  • Democrats founded the Klan
  • Hillary Said Super-Predator!
  • Get off the plantation!
  • Walk Away
  • Evidence Unclear

I’m under no illusion that the Democratic Party is free of racial bias. It’s an American party. So it’s got racial bias, which is a core part of our country’s identity, sadly, along with some of those lofty visions of freedom and liberty that we also have. However, these arguments about the party’s history are both useless and insulting.

If you’ve found yourself making these arguments, I challenge you to sit with a more interesting question. (All “overall” numbers include the black population so are going to be closer than they would be otherwise). Black people are just shy of 13% of the population. They are the most religiously affiliated racial demographic (87% religious vs 83% overall), the most Christian (79% vs 75% overall), and much more devout on average (79% of religious saying religion is “very important” in their lives vs 56%).

So, if the Republican Party is truly a Christian party, and we make the reasonable assumption that Christianity as practiced by African-Americans is valid, then why is it not attractive to the overwhelming majority of them? Let’s make a further assumption that your average black person is a rational actor, like you. They are equally capable of reason and assessing a situation for what it truly is. Why would a Christian rational actor vote something other than Republican?

The typical reasons we give require us to make black people irrational actors. We are presumably swayed by promises of “free stuff” from Democrats. Our Christianity is infected with social justice that has nothing to do with the Gospel. Like children, we just need to be trained up properly in the way we should go.

What if, instead, the Republican Party wasn’t actually advocating for Christian values? What if the Republican Party refused to consistently confront and expunge neo-Confederates in their ranks, practitioners of an ideology that is explicitly anti-black? What if, instead of needing to walk away from a presumed mental enslavement from a party giving out trinkets but no real advancement, black people are rationally dealing with a “lesser evil” because the Republican Party is offering no credible change in their quality of life and will not acknowledge the shadow that America’s bipartisan history casts into the present?

Now, let’s ask a parallel question. Why would poor white people vote for economic policies that have demonstrably hurt their position? If I were to rely on the same reasoning as used on the “black voting problem”, I would be forced to conclude they are irrational, simple-minded actors, swayed easily by promises of protection from people trying to take their things or their status as the superior group. I’d be forced to conclude their Christianity is infected with a love of money and comfort that has nothing to do with the Gospel. But that wouldn’t be fair, would it?

It’s critical that we give the groups we are trying to win over the respect of assuming they’re no less capable of assessing a situation than we are. If you want me to vote Republican, it’s not enough to show me how the Democrats have failed me or fallen short. You need to show me how the Republicans won’t. And you have to be honest with who the party has decided to be.

The Republicans had 17 choices for what direction they could go in 2016. They chose Trump. Somebody, I don’t know who but I think they were important, said “By their fruits shall you know them.” I’m not passing judgment, I’m just looking at the fruit.

(numbers courtesy of Pew – http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/a-religious-portrait-of-african-americans/)

On The Assault of Jussie Smollett

Because of his fame, the assault of Jussie Smollett is gaining the media attention that women being murdered by gunmen, LGBTQ+ people being harmed daily, and women and girls being abused rampantly have failed to. The assailants called him racial and orientational slurs, used bleach, and put a noose around his neck, while telling him “This is MAGA country.”

The sandhills are soft, warm, and waiting for heads to be stuck into them again. People are accusing him of lying, or saying that the assailants didn’t say those things, or if they did they couldn’t be that bad, or if it was that bad it was still an individual and not the “MAGA Movement’s” fault.

What we must understand is that individual hatred without power is morally abhorrent, but impotent. Only when connected to the permission and the protection of power does hatred become a weapon that can be used to punish the marginalized, those with less power, with impunity.

MAGA, even in its most benign form, harkens to a fictional past where America was better and simpler than it is today. MAGA is a tightly zoomed in lens, focused on a living room in a Levittown home, where a white suburban 1950s family lives a comfortable, worry-free life. It does not zoom out to the real estate office down the street that steered the black family away, to the unmarked Native burial ground, to the urban ghettos for new immigrants from Latinx and Asian countries that would forever be seen as other, to the son sent away from that home for his desire to be with another man and living on the street.

MAGA is a lie. It is a lie based on the greater lie of white supremacy and on the heroic myths that we choose to tell ourselves instead of the brutal facts of history that tend to leave few hands clean.

We must also understand the intersectionality of power. Smollett’s fame and to a lesser extent his maleness and cis-ness will cause this to have more attention. Our society says “sure he’s gay and black, but he is entertaining, so he is valuable.” As we express outrage at this assault, we must also place it into its context.We are witnessing a rebellion of systems of power against an increase in love, compassion, and justice. Men, angry that they no longer have the right to treat women as they please, take up arms and kill them. Racists, angry that they are facing a meritocracy for the first time, attack black colleagues and bystanders. Bigots who believe gay and trans people shouldn’t be suffered to live express their violent sentiments in back alleys and subway stations. And we, too often the complicit masses, look for balance where there is none. We cry ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.

Let us lament a country that threatens to replace its motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out Of Many, One) with “Make America Great Again”, and then let us lift ourselves from the threshing floor and commit to banishing the lies of false history and denied humanity back into the pit of hell.

Meeting Rev. Dr. King For The First Time

This message today is for my Trump supporting friends, or my right-leaning friends who aren’t big fans of Trump but like American conservative policies as currently implemented. I promise it’s not a finger wag or an apologetic to convince you of a different way, at least not from me.
 
I know you love people, and you wish to show no partiality. You don’t like what you call “identity politics”, and you think that like Justice Roberts said, “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” You say that racism is a heart issue, not a legislative or other kind of issue, and that only by changing hearts and building relationships can we evolve to be a people that do not show partiality. Once we love each other correctly, the systems will take care of themselves, we’ll tear them down together. You believe that America with its mighty armies and unleashing of free market forces is the greatest country on Earth, and that we’ve primarily been a force for good in the world. Mistakes have been made in the details, but our approach was right, basically every time.
 
Most importantly for today, you genuinely respect and honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his legacy. You want to judge by content of character, not color of skin, like King.
 
So today, if the above matches your views on race, please honor Dr. King by reading Letter From A Birmingham Jail. If the above matches your views on America, read his Beyond Vietnam speech that made him hated and marginalized by many. And no matter what, you should read the entire text of his whole I Have A Dream speech that has defined his legacy more than any other for who America thinks it is and who it wants to be.
 
Take in these words from our latter day prophet. Wrestle with them. Rebut if you like; your argument is not with me, but with him. Understand the context in which they were delivered. I Have A Dream was delivered at a march for economic justice. King was in jail to write his letter because he was protesting for better treatment, because he was asserting that Black Lives Matter, too, long before that was a catchphrase. King was well studied in theology and philosophy, and digested and engaged with a rich tradition of ideas that also were critical in our country’s formation.

Instead of quoting King out of context or, as my friend Elizabeth Behrens pointed out in her comments at Be The Bridge Live, focusing on a vision of children of all colors holding hands without being concerned about what happens when the playdate is over, really engage with Rev. Dr. King today.  And once you’ve read who he’s consistently been, in full context, ask yourself what he would have to say about our moment.

Would he agree with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

How might he suggest we deal with immigration?

What would he have to say about the DOJ report on Ferguson, the shootings of unarmed people, and the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore?

What would he have said about Charlottesville?

Would he have stood beside the elder in Washington, singing the peace song between the jeering Hebrew Israelites and the children from the Catholic school who, instead of crucifixes or robes, were draped in the clothing of acolytes of the Church of Trump?

Would he have something to say about the environmental injustice in Flint and other cities?

About global climate issues?

Like any good prophet, I think King has correctives for both sides of the aisle. His convictions do not align neatly with a party affiliation. Let’s listen clearly, and commit that our work to justice will not be restricted to brief prayer and possibly teary reflection without disrupting anything in our segregated, convenient lives. Let’s get into real relationship with people not like us. Let’s believe them when they tell us about their suffering, rather than assuming that, unlike ourselves, they are being influenced by the media and simply need to have their eyes opened so they can rightly know good and evil, like ourselves.

Let’s listen to King this year. Let’s learn from him. And talk to me about it afterward! I’d love to hear how the meeting went.

Anecdotes from The American Healthcare Front

teacher-kidney.jpg
Teacher at exit ramp looking for a kidney donation

I have some issues with my ears periodically, and over the past week, it felt like one was developing a minor infection. It felt full a lot and started to become painful. I knew that I was going to need to give it some medical attention. I thought about going to my primary care team at Emory, formerly Harken Health. In the Harken days, primary care appointments were included in your insurance and you could schedule to go by any time. They also managed patient load so providers would have time to develop relationships, and they partnered with health coaches that could deal with the para-medical stuff so the medical pros could focus on things requiring their specific skill set. Now that Harken’s gone, Emory still has great staff, but works like a regular doctor’s office – scheduling visits always takes a few days, visits are shorter, and the health coaches, where they exist, are swamped and can’t give the individual attention my Harken coach gave.

The ER was out of the question, that’s a minimum of $2K spend and a distraction from people who need truly urgent, serious care. (Don’t believe me? Stop by an ER and try it for yourself. A friend of mine had stress-related chest pain due to the amount he was working and how little pay he was receiving to cope with the other stressors in his life and got slapped with a $5K bill.)

Urgent care is probably the best option, but that was going to run me a bit as well. Not too much, maybe a hundred or so. But of course I already pay several hundred a month for insurance, so that’s frustrating that my insurance is really more “hit by a bus” insurance than health care.

I ended up repurposing some antibiotic ointment I had for a recent eye injury that unequivocally required a doctor’s visit (that I’m sure I’ll get a hearty bill for soon), and it worked. I’ll keep at it for a few days to make sure it’s good.

Now, I have the means to get decent health care, even if it’s not convenient and a little pricey. What are people who have no flexibility in their schedule doing? What do you do when taking a half-day off work means you may be eating ramen next week, or nothing, because you’ll be fired “at-will”? And what happens when you face a real challenge that’s out of your control, like the teacher above who needs a kidney to live? If he can find the kidney, he will probably have decent health care as a state employee, but what if he didn’t have great insurance? Who would pay for that?

Those who support interdependent community do ourselves a disservice by allowing Medicaid for all, or any of the other public options, to be portrayed as an altruistically valuable but optional program, a gift to the neediest among us. It’s not a matter of kindness and convenience, without which life would be a little less pleasant but still bearable. People are choosing between medical bills and house payments, between medical bills and food. And it doesn’t take a significant condition or a bad decision.

We in the middle class especially make the mistake of thinking that we are where we are because of good decisions. The rich are lucky, sure, accidents of birth, right place, right time, but not us. We scrimp and save. We plan. We forego instant gratification for the long term, and look at our lives as a result. If we can do it, anyone can.

The truth is, we make the same bad decisions as the poor all the time. We buy a car that’s a hundred a month more than we should be paying. We spring for that dessert, or that hotel upgrade, or that extra night out on the town. The only difference is that we are not on the line between sustainable and unsustainable, and have a bigger cushion to absorb those mistakes. If you are making just enough to live on, springing for dessert could make you miss a payment. Missing a payment causes you to hit fees that push up your effective interest rate into triple digits. And the spiral begins.

I listened to a couple on NPR a couple of years ago that ran a food truck in Wisconsin. They were struggling, as the spouse with a corporate job had lost it, and lost their benefits along with it. When asked how they would deal with the cost of health care as they aged, they shrugged (with indecision rather than indifference) and finally stated that their children would take care of it.

I don’t believe this couple was intentionally so selfish as to burden their children with such a responsibility. But the language of American self-sufficiency has backed us into a corner. We cannot conceive of a world where a public good is actually, well, good. However, we readily imagine that a giant corporation motivated by profit will take care of our needs as well as our consumer desires. We respond with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where anyone on the wrong side of a law that protects the right to profit without regard to human cost deserves nothing, deserves to be cast aside. We are the worthy ones, because we currently have what appears like favor, but instead is simply utility to a soulless, unfeeling set of economic machinery.

As usual, any critique of the current order by an American must be met with “but I’m not talking about socialism!” So let’s get that out of the way. Public goods controlled by elected or especially appointed authorities who are not accountable to the people is just authoritarianism. This is what we saw in every single country that we love to hold up as inevitable outcomes of socialism. So no, I’m not talking about turning America into a giant commune or turning everything over to the government, certainly not while we have an apathetic republic that won’t hold its elected officials accountable in any consistent way. I’m also not talking about eliminating inequality. Human nature is to be rewarded in a proportion to effort, and any system that doesn’t allow that will eventually be overthrown by one that does.

But why do we think that this relentless pursuit of profit is the best of all possible worlds? We generate money printing machines that consume the landscape and crush the spirits of the people, and aggregate more and more for the machine’s makers. More importantly, we have created a mythology around poverty that causes us to see it more as damnation from a god that has refused your feeble sacrifice, while wealth is a blessing and a reward from a god that respects your hard work. This mythology is why we have the IRS losing money to chase small debts while corporations that evade billions in taxes are ignored. It’s why we won’t pay for Medicaid for All and are trying to dismantle food programs, quality public education, and other portions of the safety net, even though evidence keeps coming back that these investments are cheaper than the alternative.

Where the Christians have it right is that this is a heart issue. America loved the social safety net when it primarily benefited white men in the New Deal era. When the program was expanded to benefit more Americans through the Great Society, subsequent administrations quickly set to work dismantling them. Beyond the cost savings many properly implemented programs could bring, we have to ask ourselves what intangible cost our individual lack of accountability to our community brings. Are we safer when everyone is on their own financially? Are we less stressed when everyone has to work long days in cold environments? Are we happier when our neighbor cannot be counted on to care for us if we’re in need? Are we freer when every gift we give has conditions?

Who is my neighbor? And what is my obligation to them?

Singing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

-Langston Hughes

A stray browse on Ancestry.com turned up the white ancestor on one side of the family yesterday. Most black people in America have a white ancestor. When black people were enslaved, slaveholders asserted full dominion over black bodies, and children produced from rape were endemic. For many of us, the trail goes cold at 1865, as individual slave records were much less common. After all, no one reports the names of their cattle even today.

It was appropriate that I found this ancestor around now, as it’s the time America celebrates its rebellion and creation of a new country. My 5 times great grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. He also owned slaves. His son, who carried his last name and was my 4 times great grandfather, was listed as “mulatto”, or mixed-race. My 5 times great grandmother is not documented by name.

Once I found the white ancestor, my automatically generated hints went from a trickle to a flood. Hundreds of clues about colonial settlers, landed gentry, and nobles appear. This is also unsurprising. As most white people who don’t want to face race conversations will point out, the majority of white people didn’t own slaves, and as such wouldn’t have likely had interactions with black people to produce children once racial caste was codified. If you are black and your white ancestor was a slavemaster, it’s thus likely that your ancestor was a person of means.

I traced that section of family to Welsh nobility and English gentlefolk. I even discovered that B. F. Goodrich, the tire manufacturer, is a distant cousin. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fascination and yes, a bit of pride in knowing these interesting stories behind these portions of my family. It also made me sad.

I think of my 4 times great grandfather William. Under what circumstances did he leave home? Was he sent with resources? Was his father’s wife kind or cruel to him? And I think of the family rich enough to have named land within the town they lived. What did they pass on to their “legitimate” children?

This is the balance, the contradiction, that Langston Hughes talked about in his poem “I, Too”. A Revolutionary War soldier, descended from Quakers, owned slaves, likely forced himself upon my ancestor and produced the line that ultimately made me. I’m descended from enslaved people and nobles. I am a product of documented history and secrets.

When I was in 8th grade, I was talking with a white friend about heritage. I said I didn’t know what mine was, but I knew on one side of the family I had some Creole ancestors. She went on a rant that would have made a white nationalist proud. She said, “you know what Creole is? A mixture. That doesn’t mean anything. My ancestors were Irish and Polish, and came over on X boat X years ago. That’s a heritage!” Being young and not especially versed in self-esteem, I made the mistake of allowing that to make me feel ashamed.

There’s an unmoored, lost feeling many of us as black Americans feel when it comes to ancestry. The trails stop cold in 3-4 generations usually. People disappear due to lynching or rapid moving away under duress. Families uprooted and fled north in patterns that we would call “ethnic cleansing” today. With resignation, we see it as another thing taken from us, like wealth under Jim Crow and what came after, like dignity under enslavement.

I’m still learning how to navigate the genuine feelings of pride I have in America and the anger and disappointment I feel toward it. And as I imagine my ancestors near, I wonder how old Reuben Roberts navigates an afterlife alongside those he enslaved, witnessing who I am becoming, and who my sixth cousins on the other side of the racial line have become.

I’m thinking of going to his grave to ask, but the dead are notoriously difficult to get answers from.

The Talk

What you’ll learn here is important.
Sit quietly, now, and let me explain.
I will show you how this works.

First, be perfect. No errors in diction,
in posture, attire, stride, or movement.
What you’ll learn here is important.

Second, be patient. Watch your grandfather,
mother, brother, daughter, push the rock uphill.
I will show you how this works.

The rock will slip at the top of the hill,
but see! This time it falls not quite so far.
What you’ll learn here is important.

The secret is blood and bone, piled so high,
the rock can slide no further. Progress!
I will show you how this works.

Your ankles’ skin will serve for bootstraps,
and one day, your flesh will shorten the day’s work.
What you’ll learn here is important.
I will show you how this works.

-C. G. Brown
9 April 2018

Y.N.D.

“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018