Friday, June 19, 2015

It Takes a Village

Photo of Tyler Lee Rebel Guard 1965 from my High School Yearbook

Last night John Stewart set aside his comedy to speak seriously about the deaths of nine innocents in Charleston, and about race and our failure to come to grips with the elephant in the room His video can be seen here:

His words moved me to respond on my church list after viewing this. I realized I should share it to a wider blog audience. Here's what I wrote:

Let me share a piece of my own history. I grew up in Tyler, Texas. There was a confederate arms plant there during the civil war. I attended Robert E. Lee High School. We were the Tyler Lee Rebels and at our football games, one of the largest confederate flags in the nation was marched out onto the field held aloft during football games and Dixie was played by the band as we all sang along at the beginning and through the games, especially after touch downs. We also had the rebel guard, dressed in confederate uniforms who fired a cannon after every touchdown.

In American History, we spent over a semester just on the Civil War. There was a distinctly southern bias to what was taught. I used to point with pride to the ancestors who had fought for the south. Our myths were about great courage, and the great tragedy when a way of life had been destroyed by the yankee invaders. I knew people older than myself who spoke with pure hate about Sherman and his scorched earth policy. Our schools back then were segregated and our lives were segregated and I knew several in my home town who were racists and some who went on to become klan members. I graduated from high school in a hospital bed, a result of a motorcycle accident, where I remained for 3 months with my leg strung up in traction while the missing bone grew back in. At my graduation, the principal and superintendent were there as was the local press to photograph this proud young person at graduation, with a confederate flag draped across my pillow. The only black person I knew growing up was the help. Underpaid of course and she came in to clean every Saturday. She would be considered "one of the good ones." Then there was Grasshopper, who I only knew one day. He planted our lawn. I was five years old and he wove the most amazing stories for this young child, and to this day I remember him if not the stories with incredible fondness. I'm sure he's long since passed on, but his presence lives in my heart.

Here's the thing. I was lucky. I went to college and met real black people and the stereotypes began to melt away. I chose a career in public service and especially when I got to Houston, many, sometimes most of my co-workers and managers were black. I'd had an entire childhood of cultural myths to unlearn but they had no qualms about telling me how it really was. Unlike Minnesota, folks there can be pretty direct. But heres my point. This guy committed these murders in South Carolina, but he did not act alone even if he was not affiliated with any group. The phrase "it takes a village" resonates with me on this. There was family, friends, the community who nurtured the mythology of a dying culture stolen from them. A belief of the immoral black villains raping their women and resting control of their perceived image of white superiority and control. It's Lyndsay Graham hastily portraying the killer as some kind of crazy person and not like the rest of them other white people. Nikki Haley says the flag remains because she hasn't had any complaints from corporations. Seriously? A comment probably true in her world as those are her bosses, but really? Never mind the really large population of Black South Carolinians who've been gerrymandered out of representation. It's two politicians defending that flag, the very symbol of white supremacy coached in the very same terms that existed when I was a young person attending Tyler Lee. Lots of winking and nodding, code to conceal a very real racism and a commitment to maintain white supremacy. We've had a civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties, yet despite all that, we really haven't moved forward far at all.

Today I read the guy who did this heinous deed said he almost didn't go through with it. Those folks had been so nice to him he said. Here he had confronted real compassion and real love. But the messages, the mythology of his own being trumped reality. So now there are nine dead. He will go to prison. He's going to find other white supremacists there and they will commiserate together. Meanwhile, the community continues to hide from the truth, and perpetuate the myth of racial superiority. Until we change the community, this will be but one in a string of the attacks on the innocents stretching well over 400 years/ It does take a village. But one filled with compassion, not racist bulls**t.

One last thought. The confederacy was about traitors, not heroes. Their symbol of the flag was a symbol of treason. Time to quit pretending otherwise. I've spent a lifetime undoing my own damage. But I'm just one. This time compassion did not succeed. But in the long term I think it will. Regardless, it's a far better mythology than the one being perpetuated.May the healing begin.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reflections on Terror in Charleston

Ironically, day before yesterday my wife and I were having a conversation. I was thinking about the huge increase in militias, hate groups plus the increased rhetoric around hate, racism and the absurd denial by politicians who don't even recognize the racism that surrounds us every day. With a sigh, I told her that we were not dealing with it now, and things could get a lot worse if we don't.

The very next day, I hear of the terror attack in Charleston. I'd love to say I was surprised. But I wasn't. Saddened, yes. Angry? That also. But how could I be surprised in a climate of hate that surrounds us each day? A world where police continue to gun down unarmed citizens and target black and brown people as if they were somehow inherently evil by virtue of the color of their skin. A world where educational priorities go to affluent white neighborhoods at the expense of those without resources. A world where prisons operate for profit and there is an incentive to arrest and incarcerate. A world where preschool and early elementary kids are expelled from school because of the incompetence of their teachers.

Two news broadcasts stand out in my mind. One I didn't see but heard about. Fox News who as a matter of policy denies that racism even exists, decrying the very idea this was a racist attack or a hate crime. In their fantastical world that is not possible. I listened to a broadcast on so called liberal MSNBC where it was noted this was the worst mass killing in South Carolina's history. Um I suppose if you ignore the lynchings, the state sanctioned killing of 33 black folks involved in a slave revolt, mostly from this very church. Everyone acts as if this were a singular event. I suppose that's essential if you're trying to preserve the myth of white supremacy. But reality, yeah I know, uncommon these days, demands that one acknowledge the open racism, the blatant attempts by politicians to exploit that divide for their own benefit, the ongoing attacks on black and brown people around the country by a whole bevy of so called "lone wolves." Privilege demands I think, that we ignore the real role we as white people are playing in this ongoing slaughter.

Here's truth however. The population of white vs non white Americans is changing and whites are moving towards what will be a clear minority. If we persist in this evil that grants us privilege over others, and allows us to label each perpetrator of these heinous crimes as a lone wolf, a disturbed individual, but not part of a larger event, the anger of a people thus denied justice or fairness can only grow. If we scream bloody murder about a small group of New Black Panthers carrying arms while militias and white gun freaks tote their weapons openly and with abandon, that anger will grow. White people, the choice is ours to make. Confront our own racism, our own privilege and work towards healing of our humanity of which we all are a part, or sit about complacent in our advantages and face a bloody resurrection sometime in the future that will truly hurt us all. Those of us who are white must raise our heads out of the sand and confront our own evil. We must work together to end these killings by a succession of terrorists that seem to have no end. I chose the photo of the Edmond Pettus Bridge. Because the struggles of the early slaves and freedmen in America, of the Civil War, of Jim Crow laws the divide, and of Mass Incarceration that serves the wealthy seeking low wage workers are all part of one struggle.

I look at the history of this church. Good people, prayerful people, people committed to justice and fairness. The wrong people lost their lives. My prayers join that of many others for them, for their families, and for their community. My prayer also is that this will serve as an awakening within white people everywhere. We must actively join our black and brown brothers and sisters and and strike a death blow to that evil we call racism. If we can construct racism, we can take it apart. But it's going to take all of us. Listen to the black people you know. Here there stories and embrace them We've listened to our own lies for generations. Now it is time to hear their truth and to be moved by it. This killing was NOT an isolated event. It's part of an ongoing national history, a part of an ongoing national shame, and it's got to end, sooner rather than later. We need to confront media when it gets it wrong. We need to openly advocate regardless if it costs us friends. The killing and injustice must end.

May it be so.