Yes America, we have a race and class problem

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.

Ending the privileged caste

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps you’ve seen the “This is water” video. If you haven’t, spend nine minutes or so watching it:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and if you keep up on contemporary American politics it’s not hard to understand why. We tend to take for granted what is given to us. For example, I appreciated my father who passed away last month but at the same time I took him for granted. I assumed most sons had fathers of his caliber. It wasn’t until many decades later – and particularly after having gone through the fatherhood process myself – that I realized how exceptional he was. I was barely able to emulate him for one child. He did it for eight of us.

Most of us go through life vaguely aware at best of the enormous resources expended on our behalf. Like a fish in a fishbowl, we take them for granted. The easiest ones to appreciate are our parents, who also become the easiest to despise if they don’t live up to our expectations. It takes a village to raise a child, Hillary Clinton opined in her book, but it takes much more than a village. It takes resources from the family level to the international level. These include clean water (something the residents of Flint, Michigan no longer take for granted), committed teachers, police, our military, ministers, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, doctors, orthodontists and even diplomats. The list is endless. In general, the more you can avail yourself of these resources, the higher the standard of living and your opportunities are likely to be.

Some of us are more favored than others. As we grow to understand this, our privilege becomes painful to acknowledge and sets up cognitive dissonance. At some level we of some privilege realize that our privilege was purchased at the expense of someone else’s. The dissonance generally results in denial. I am seeing it played out on the national stage, particularly in the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump is riding collective white cognitive dissonance to a likely Republican Party nomination. Why? It’s because it is easier for many of us whites to support someone like this than to acknowledge, or worse address the bald fact that we are greatly disproportionately privileged. It’s not that we are better than other people, it’s that we got special treatment because we live inside a privileged caste generations in the making. Just as the fish is not aware of the water most of us choose to be deliberately ignorant of our privileged status.

In fact many whites in the United States are not privileged at all. Visit Appalachia and you will see plenty of them. Their lives are just as unprivileged and harsh as is a black child’s living in public housing in Southeast Washington D.C. and may be worse. Nonetheless, many of these whites won’t acknowledge this. They sincerely believe that because they are white they are better than the non-whites. In fact, Trump and other Republican candidates are exploiting them by pretending to throw the shield of white privilege over them, privileges that largely do not exist.

The Republican message is in two parts. First, it’s that because you are white you are better and deserve privilege and if you vote for the others you will lose that privilege. Second, is that you are “temporarily impoverished millionaires”. You just need to do a few things by yourself (never with the help of others) to become successful.

Both these messages are lies but are lies that most of us cannot acknowledge even to ourselves. On the first point, we all know innately that skin color has no more bearing on your capacity than does eye color. We even say these words while doing largely the opposite, and most of us aren’t aware of our inconsistency. On the second point we also know this is a myth with only a tiny kernel of truth. This perhaps had some truth in the past, when there were fewer hurdles to success. It’s painfully obvious that today to really succeed you need lifelong coaching and resources, plus a certain amount of tenacity and luck. You cannot rise from humble shoeshine boy to Elon Musk through tenacity alone. In Musk’s case you have to inhabit a rich technological world and have both the talent and resources to ride these changes to your own success and profit. This won’t happen to poor working class Appalachians or black children in Southeast Washington D.C. It’s not completely impossible, but your odds of winning the lottery are much better. Perhaps that explains why so many middle and lower income people play the lottery in the first place.

For someone like me who is white, privileged and can see that his success is largely a result of the rich nutrient “water” in which I was raised, the question then becomes what should I do about it. Should I emulate Jesus and give all my riches to the poor? Should I help out in soup kitchens? Just how much of my treasure and time should I give back? Of course, I give back already. I do give money to charity; in fact it’s an item in the family budget, currently $250 a month. Much of it goes to Planned Parenthood, environmental causes, a local food bank and a local abused women’s shelter. On the latter, I recently had coffee with an outreach director of the local women’s shelter and offered my time as a volunteer, coach and mentor; however I could be of use. Since I am otherwise retired, I don’t have lack of time as an excuse.

Perhaps my efforts deserve a pat on the back, but considering how privileged I have been in this life it deserves not even that. Of course I am quite interested in changing the dynamics, which is why I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. It’s quite clear to me that this institutional racism and classism is baked into our laws. To truly address these problems, laborers first have to be paid a living wage. Needless to say Donald Trump and all the other Republican candidates are running away from this idea, which has the effect of keeping the same failed policies in place. This in turn ensures more decades of inequality and will effective keep the others in poverty and in their place for future generations. Increasingly, we are the others and we are voting against our own best interests. Most of the lemmings following Donald Trump are being used to their own disadvantage.

I do know at some point I will inherit some money. My father left everything to my stepmother, but their wills are similar. When she dies all of us children (including our stepmother’s) will get 5% of their estate. I have no idea how much their estate is worth, but I’m guessing it’s about a million dollars. So perhaps I will inherit $50,000 or so.

I have been talking about this future windfall with my wife. We should not need the money to improve our standard of living and in our case $50,000 really doesn’t buy a change in our standard of living anyhow. Our daughter will get a hefty share of our estate when we are gone. $50,000 though can do a whole lot for someone further down the food chain.

When the windfall finally arrives, I plan to find one underprivileged but promising person and use it to move them a rung up the ladder. Aside from greatly reducing my own standard of living (which is actually reasonably modest but better than most), giving away my inheritance is the only significantly meaningful thing I can do, but only if done right. If it moves one poor but talented person from a life behind a fast food counter to doing something that gives them both meaning and income, it may set about a cycle of virtuous changes that may take many generations to flower. I am unlikely to witness these, as I will be planted six feet underground. It seems that the best I can do to make amends is to plant a seed, water it while I can and hope.

Republicans are simply racists and classists

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you watch the last night’s Republican debate; you know the one where Donald Trump snippily decided he would not attend because he doesn’t like questions that Megyn Kelly might ask? You did? Good for you and apparently you are more into politics than I am. I was certain I’d learn nothing new and from the reviews I was right. So now voters wait warily for the results of the Iowa caucuses next Monday night. Let’s hope the Republicans get it right this time.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the Republican Party after the next election. I’ll be lifting a glass of champagne if that happens to be the case. Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t recognize his own party anyhow. Republicans after all freed the slaves and today’s Republicans want to make them slaves again. I won’t be lifting my glass too high though because as bad as the Republican Party is, I do think whatever phoenix emerges from its ashes could actually be worse.

What got me thinking this way was reading the latest Washington Post OpEd by conservative Charles Krauthammer. After the obligatory sentences saying how Bernie Sanders couldn’t get elected because America doesn’t elect socialists (conveniently ignoring the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt won four terms on an effectively socialist platform, and by overwhelming majorities), Krauthammer looks at the factions within the G.O.P. In particular he notes that Donald Trump is not really conservative, certainly not in the sense that he wants to rollback social programs. In the same paper, Fareed Zakaria notes that Republicans have given lip service to getting rid of social programs and in many cases expanded them. In fact, he notes polls that economically conservative Republicans are going for Cruz over Trump by 15 percent, while Trump wins by 30 percent over Cruz from Republicans holding “progressive positions”, such as on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and the benefits of unions.

Well, this is a head scratcher, until you think about it a little while. One possibility is that Trump is expanding the Republican base, pulling in (principally white) people that don’t tend to vote Republican, or vote at all, because no one in the party represents them. However, there is no evidence that Republican Party registration is increasing significantly nationwide, as this recent Gallup poll attests. Zakaria does quote Michael Tessler of the Rand Corporation, who provided his statistics. Tessler says: “Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.” This is a polite way of saying Trump does much better with the party’s racists. This is not surprising until you think about what this actually means.

What principally unites the Republican Party (to the extent it is united) is not fiscal conservatism. It’s not the importance of federalism (state control). It’s not God, an aggressive foreign policy and it’s certainly not Jesus. It’s not even guns. Their principle shared-value is that they think they are special and deserve a singular status over the rest of society, who they mostly look down on. In short, most of them are racists, even if they can’t even admit it to themselves. It’s more acceptable to be a classist, instead of a racist, which many will openly acknowledge. This basically means they don’t believe in egalitarianism and that some for whatever reasons (status, wealth, race, education, values) deserve to be privileged. Moreover because they are privileged, they should not feel (and apparently don’t feel) ashamed of this. It’s this energy that Trump is harnessing. When push comes to shove, this is what Republicans care about.

I believe it is part of Carl Rove’s master plan. He fed these primal fears to give the Republican Party oversize stature. They feel it slipping away, which is why Republican-led states enacted onerous voting restrictions. Their loss of their status, real or in many cases imaginary is their greatest motivation. Trump was savvy enough to cut through the bullshit and go for the jugular. This is why he is leading in the polls. (It does help to have so many competing candidates that the opposition is scattered.)

After all, if you want power it’s not about making a logical case; it’s about making a resonating emotional case. Fear is a great motivator and Republicans excel at looking behind their backs. Trump succeeds by saying that those others not like us are the cause of our fear of loss of status and privilege. Throw out the “illegals” and things may not be well, but they sure will be better. He has ruled out major changes to Medicare and Social Security because he’s read the polls and knows his fans support programs like these. Tax cuts go disproportionately to the wealthy but welfare goes disproportionately not to the poor, but to the middle class.

Medicare and Social Security are just two ways to keep the middle pacified, but it’s only the beginning. There is the employer health insurance tax credit, which annually costs three times as much as food stamps. There is the home mortgage interest deduction, tuition tax credits and even energy efficiency credits that go only to those who can afford to take advantage of them. Power is secured through keeping the rabble happy. Trump knows there are plenty in the middle who understand their standard of living is wobbly. The last thing most of these people want is more uncertainty to their standard of living, but they are perfectly happy to add uncertainty to those who don’t think and act like them: the others. Me first!

The Romans quickly realized that the rabble wasn’t happy unless the lions ate a gladiator or two now and then. They made it convenient for citizens to enjoy this entertainment by allowing everyone in for free. Trump is metaphorically doing the same thing: he is harnessing the power that is already there. He plays the crowd the same way Itzhak Perlman plays the violin. He plays up the juicy expectation of red meat to come: walls along the border with Mexico and less of the other among us. He says: less of them means more for us and will make us (the privileged) great again. And so they dance and he knows that the rest of the party will come along in time. The Republican Party leadership seems to understand which way the wind is blowing. Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus recently said as much, and even elder statesmen like Bob Dole seem to be acknowledging they will fall in line too. Power is what counts; whatever message gives them that power is okay.

It’s just that because of Donald Trump it’s now out in the open. Even Republicans can’t deny it anymore because their leading candidate simply won’t. They are the party of people like them: white racists and classists. They just can’t hide from it anymore.

The real price of discrimination

The Thinker by Rodin

Today’s Martin Luther King holiday actually has me reflecting on Martin Luther King. That’s in part due to the annual news stories about the holiday and snippets of his most famous speeches that always show up on social media on the holiday. Most churches reinforce his legacy, as mine did yesterday. The bloody march he led to Montgomery, Alabama, which began at a bridge in Selma, Alabama (it happened fifty years ago this March) killed some and injured many more innocent people who were simply demanding that blacks be treated equally.

One of those killed was a Unitarian Universalist minister, and that’s important to me because I am a UU. The Reverend Jim Reeb was one of many UU ministers who hustled down to Selma to join the march to Montgomery. White men with clubs attacked him and others on the march. He likely died because he could not get to a hospital in time, as he could only be transported in a black ambulance (which also got a flat tire en route), even though he was white. Also among the UU ministers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma was the UU minister Reverend John Wells, then of the Mount Vernon, Virginia UU church. He married my wife and I thirty years ago. He spoke proudly of his participation in the march when we met with him for some pre-nuptial planning.

2014 sobered many of us up who were beginning to believe we lived in a post racial society. After all we had elected a black president not once, but twice. Things are certainly better racially than they were fifty years ago in Selma. Yet if we have come a long way to end racism, it’s now undeniable that we still have a long way yet to go. Quite obviously though it’s not just racism that divides us. Martin Luther King spent most of his ministry trying to bring about racial justice, but he was certainly aware that injustice had many aspects. Racial injustice was easy to see and impossible to ignore. Dr. King also helped open the door to expose other forms of discrimination. While I feel aghast at how much work remains to create a racially just society, I can also feel satisfaction in how far we’ve come in other areas. Later this year it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will make same sex marriage a right. Fifty years ago homosexuals were barely acknowledged. This is tremendous progress.

There may be a reason that homophobia receded so quickly. Whereas skin color is impossible to ignore, someone’s sexual preference is impossible to know unless it is disclosed. It might be inferred but it’s hard to say with certainty. Whereas many whites may know few blacks intimately, most of us have a gay sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle in the family (and maybe several). This has the effect of forcing us to confront our prejudices. It is easier for us to identify with others when they are close to us. I think this principally explains the stunning advancement of marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians. As gays and lesbians gain rights and broad acceptance in society, it is becoming easier for other queers to gain acceptance too. The brave new oppressed social group these days seems to be the transgender community. It’s not hard to predict that this community, which already has rights in some localities, will gain full equality relatively quickly as well as specific legal protections. Many of us have now encountered an openly transgender person in the workplace and they no longer seem scary. I have known three.

We don’t think of whites looking down on fellow whites, but in truth whites do this all the time. The whites that populate most of Appalachia, particularly the lower class whites, are targets of discrimination and ridicule too. Terms like “white trash” should be just as offensive as “nigger”. This is an area I need to work on, as I have lampooned Walmart shoppers in a few posts, although it’s not just whites that shop at Walmart. Sites like peopleofwalmart.com and whitetrashrepairs.com cater to those who like to look down at what we perceive as the faults or eccentricities of lower class whites, but really just those with lower incomes in general or that strike us as intensely peculiar.

The unspoken animus is that while we can afford our lifestyle, they cannot and therefore there must be something wrong with them. In truth, what is “wrong” with them is mostly our refusal to help them raise their economic status. These people are actually much stronger and resilient than those of us further up the economic ladder, they just don’t have the resources to ascend the ladder. If the rest of us were forced to live on a quarter of our income, we would not fare nearly as well, although we like to think we could. More about this is a subsequent post, perhaps.

There are many other ways we overtly or covertly discriminate, but they generally have “ism” in common. Most upper class whites are fine having blacks as neighbors providing they adopt our values, maintain their houses real well and don’t raise any problem children. Racism and ethnic discrimination usually amounts to classism. We gain perceived social status roughly based on our income, which we then parade in the quality of our neighborhoods, the skinniness of our trophy wives and the costs and brands of our cars.

The Irish are as white as any group of Caucasians from Europe, but they were ruthlessly discriminated and ghetto-ized when they came to America, as were many other white ethnic groups. They were not so much melted down as grudgingly accepted into the culture if they could find a golden ticket to the middle class. After a while someone’s ethnicity did not matter, but class still did. Sexism is going through something similar. One of our most glaring “isms” doesn’t quite have a word yet. I call it attractiveness discrimination. There is no question that attractive people in general have privileges and opportunities disproportionate to those perceived to be less attractive. Those judged to be plain or ugly are frequently victims of discrimination: in employment, in insurability, in wages and in many other ways. We project onto attractive people qualities they may or may not have, and sometimes discriminate against attractive people as well by assuming they can do things they cannot simply because they are attractive.

I don’t know how we fully rid ourselves of these biases and discriminatory tendencies. It is an ugly side to our species. Dogs to not appear to be classists by nature, so in that sense they are superior to us. What matters is only how they are treated, and sometimes not even that. What is hard to measure is the true cost of all this multilevel, multi-variable discrimination. Whatever the true cost is, it must be catastrophically high. When I read stories like Republicans in Congress trying to cut food stamp benefits or trying to take Medicaid away from the working poor, at best I wince and at worst I cry. To make people whose lives are already so miserable even more miserable seems like a crime worthy of being sent to hell’s lowest level. Our world is so miserable and the misery seems likely to only increase. Yet the classism within us makes the situation exponentially worse. It denies so many of us the ability to achieve their potential. Imagine what our country could be if everyone could live up to their potential. Imagine how enriched society would be.

This is the true cost of discrimination. Those of us who discriminate may do so overtly or covertly, but when we do it we stick the dagger not only into those we discriminate against, but also into ourselves. We empty ourselves of the values we need to have a loving and caring community.

On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is part of his message that so often overlooked that I am pondering. It leaves me feeling melancholy and fighting despair.