The roots of white privilege

The Thinker by Rodin

The hatred of poor and minorities across red states has reached unprecedented levels in modern times. Republicans controlling deeply gerrymandered states are doing everything possible to make life as miserable as possible for the poor and minorities. It’s really quite sickening and dispiriting to observe.

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman who literally got away with murder in Sanford, Florida (while a black woman in Florida got twenty years in prison for firing a gun into a ceiling to frighten away her abusive ex-husband) is really just the tip of the iceberg. It’s Texas that is really turning the screws. They have been helped by a recent, narrowly decided Supreme Court decision, invalidating part of the 1964 Voting Rights act that required preclearance of electoral maps in many states in the Deep South due to their history of voter discrimination. The ink on that decision was hardly dry before red states right and left began passing laws, you guessed it, to further disenfranchise already disenfranchised minorities and poor people. This typically involved more onerous and burdensome rules to be eligible to vote. But of course there will be more of the dirty electoral tricks of the past, but this time with impunity, as minority voters are forced to wait in long lines to vote while wealthy white voters walk into nearly empty precincts and cast their ballots in minutes. Also fair game again are requirements making it harder to vote via absentee ballot and when it is available allowing it for shorter periods of time. Burdensome voter ID laws are also popular.

It’s a full court press being played by these states, including, sadly, here in Virginia. The ferocity, unashamedness and tenacity from those involved in passing these laws though reflect a real fear that the days of white privilege are rapidly coming to an end. This is largely unacknowledged but very, very scary to these whites in power. In some way these laws can be seen as a primal scream of angst and pain coming directly out of their collective ids. It is probably a lot like how white South African Afrikaners felt as apartheid came to an end.

What they have been doing is using all of their oversized power while they can. They also do everything possible to garner more share of the wealth for themselves while they can. Hence, the passage of laws that are needlessly cruel. These laws make the possibility of any minority rising into power and affluence even less likely. They include rejecting Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (also made possible by a split Supreme Court decision), refusing to set up health exchanges to support the law, increasing sales taxes instead of income taxes which disproportionately hit the poor (here in Virginia we just raised the sales tax to six percent), cutting allocations for Medicaid, cutting school lunch programs, cutting food stamps (aided and abetted by Congress), and requiring women to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion. It’s all this plus passing punitive laws for those you particularly despise, like poor pregnant women. Force them to get an intrusive trans-vaginal ultrasound prior to having an abortion, and force clinics to close by requiring hospital-wide corridors in their clinics. Also, require physicians to be affiliated with a regional hospital.

Curiously the result of all this will produce a whole lot more poor and minorities, who are likely to suffer a diminished quality of life, and who will be at real risk of hunger if not outright starvation as assistance for the poor is continually cut back. Which means that when the demographics actually flip (and it won’t be long in places like Texas) and minorities figure out a way to actually leverage their political power, retribution is likely to be swift and severe.

The larger question is: why do so many whites revile minorities so much? Why the hatred? Why is it so naked? Why are we openly or covertly racist? How do we lose empathy for people not like us, if we ever had it in the first place? Where does the notion of white privilege come from anyhow? How does it get planted into our brains? What explains the severe overreaction by Texas legislators, particularly in recent months? How do these people get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror, and avoid feeling horribly ashamed?

These are good questions, ones that are rarely asked but ones I am beginning to understand thanks to a book I am reading. It makes for uncomfortable reading, at least if you are white. It’s a challenging but an honest book. Its author is Thandeka (she has no first name that I can discern), who can speak with some authority because she is not white, has studied the problem extensively and spends most of her time ministering to white people (Euro-Americans is how she calls us). If you feel up to the challenge, read her book Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America. I heard her speak recently and her talk was both deeply moving and deeply disturbing. If you think you are not racist, she has a simple exercise you can try. Simply spend a week and every time you talk about someone in the third-person, indicate their race. Talk about your white girlfriend, your white mother, your white cousin, instead of leaving race out of it. She calls it the Race Game.

Stating that someone is white explicitly it turns out is something that few whites can do for very long. It’s part of an unspoken code and you will almost certainly find the white person you are talking to will distance themselves from you if not estrange themselves from you permanently. Why is this? Thandeka says it is because we once were truly colorblind. We had to learn to be white, and when we did it caused us to feel shame, shame that we quickly learned to ruthlessly suppress. Almost all of us whites have carefully hidden this part of ourselves, which is picked up in childhood and hidden it under layers of self-protection. We feel ashamed to acknowledge this is a value that we had to pick up in order to belong, because social ostracism was simply not an option to growing up. We learned for our own survival that we must shield ourselves from thinking about it. So we put up all sorts of defense mechanisms, never think about them and of course feel exquisitely uncomfortable when we are forced to think about them, particularly aloud.

It’s what’s playing out now in Texas and across the south. It’s virtually unheard of for any white person in the United States not to carry some feelings of racism, and even harder to get rid of them. This doesn’t mean that we think of ourselves as racist, just that we carry these values that we cannot truly shake off. Shame is one of the hardest psychological conditions to cure because it means we must acknowledge deficiencies in ourselves publicly that will cause us to be ostracized. Most of us carry shame around with us, even if we are not aware of it. Shame about how we feel about the poor is another of them. It is easier to assert privileges we do not deserve and project our inadequacies and fears onto others than it is to confront the awful tragedy that this behavior wreaks not just on us, but on those we project it on: Ronald Reagan’s food stamp mother buying steaks and driving Cadillacs and African Americans who simply lack the will to better themselves. It’s amazing we can see the systematic discrimination exercised against blacks and minorities every single day by police officers and shrug it off.

Sadly, these mental conditions whites carry are resulting in actions principally across the South right now, but certainly not exclusively. We all play our race cards, overtly or implicitly. There is a reason I live in a relatively prosperous and mostly non-black community. I feel more comfortable in such a community. We pick communities where we feel comfortable, and it will tend to model the faces, lifestyles and values that we had growing up.

These are all values we pick up and we unknowingly anchor our lives around them. They might as well be part of the air that we breathe; they color our prejudices and our lives. Like it or not in the decades ahead as demographics inexorably change the color of our country, we will be taking many of the same steps to a post-racial America that occurred in South Africa a couple of decades ago. It’s probably not going to go very well, and cause a lot of tension and violence.  Some of this you can already see leaching out from our Supreme Court and places like the Texas legislature and courtrooms in Sanford, Florida.

Let’s hope we emerge from it with our blinders off and able to see everyone as brothers and equals. When that day comes, should I still be alive (and I probably won’t), white guys like me will also echo the words of Martin Luther King along with our minority friends: “Free at last, free at least, thank God almighty I am free at last.”

A little empathy please

The Thinker by Rodin

At one time or another, we have all felt the weights of prejudice, oppression and injustice in our lives. For most of us, these experiences are intermittent or transitory. Most likely you have had a teacher or two who you felt unfairly singled you out. Most likely, you were at least once the victim of a school bully. You may have had a toxic boss who unfairly took out his personal animosities on you.

Some forms of prejudice and oppression never wholly go away. Perhaps the most broadly experienced across society is obesity discrimination. If you are morbidly obese in America, you are frequently looked down upon. People do not want to sit next to you in airplanes. They often think that obesity is wholly related to lack of will, as if genetic predisposition toward obesity, such as runs in my wife’s family, did not exist. You would be hard-pressed to find a morbidly obese politician. Their chances of being elected are minute, no matter how eloquent they may be.

Discrimination, subtle or overt is all around us and we have all felt it in one for or another. Now let’s talk about racial discrimination. Many, maybe most White Americans are upset because they have been hearing and seeing snippets from the sermons from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s preacher. Many are getting hot under the collar. How could this man of the cloth call on God to damn America? Doesn’t he know that God is pro-American? How could he express it with such fervor? Why, they wonder, would a politician like Obama even associate with such a man? Doesn’t this imply that Barack Obama also thinks that God should damn America?

For many of us in White America, racial discrimination is yesterday’s news. The law has outlawed discrimination we say. If a dwindling minority of us are going to be bigots, well, that’s their business and we sure do not condone it. The rest of us White Americans, well, we are in the post-discrimination age. Therefore, it behooves African Americans to be where we already claim to be. If they just believe they are not oppressed, as we believe, then soon they will be enjoying the full fruits of this free society. All they have to do is get this chip about being born black in America off their shoulder. They need to show their moxie, like Colin Powell. They need to act, well, a lot more white.

The reason many of us white Americans feel this way is because discrimination for us tends to be an occasional thing. It is not persistent. It is rarely overt and even more rarely covert. We generally navigate okay because we are part of the tribe, of the mainstream. It is quite a different thing when discrimination is a lifelong phenomenon. African Americans know this. Other minorities experience it too, including Latino Americans and homosexuals. Yet for some reason, many of us in White America are clueless.

Discrimination is about driving down the interstate and being frequently pulled over by white state troopers because you are black. It’s about having this creepy feeling, often borne out by evidence, that you are being watched by store security. It is about going to job interviews, getting a kind of absent look from your interviewer and finding repeatedly that for some strange reason the white person got the job. For older African Americans like Jeremiah Wright, there are persistent memories of growing up and having to sit in the back of the bus, not being allowed to drink from “white” water fountains and being called “boy” by whites even when you were a man. It is about being discriminated against, not just for being black, but also for having a “black attitude”. It’s about the naiveté of white Americans who think that because some laws have been changed that African Americans are supposed to put aside the oppression that they felt through much of their life, just like that!

White Americans don’t know or don’t acknowledge the very real discrimination that is still happening. It happens most overtly in our schools. Communities with lower property values have less money to fund the schools. African Americans disproportionately live in these communities because they cannot afford nicer neighborhoods. Even in places where there is plenty of money for the schools (and Washington D.C. comes to mind) the schools are saddled with a dysfunctional bureaucracy that outlasts mayors repeated attempts to rectify things. Even if relatively well moneyed school districts like Washington D.C. could attract the best and the brightest teachers, they generally still do not want to teach there. Why? Well, the crime rates are high. The schools are dysfunctional. Many of the students are dysfunctional. They live disproportionately in single parent household where the parent (generally the Mom) is working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Why deal with it? The wealthier suburbs offer more money, better working conditions and their students are a lot less likely to go postal. That is because their students have a mother and a father at home, and their parents are involved in the local PTA.

When a state legislator suggests that school funding should be equal across the state, such attempts quickly shot down. We get a variant of the states rights arguments used for generations to oppress blacks. It is about local people having the right to decide local issues, we are told. Let’s forget that the effect of this policy means that some children get a more equal education than others. Therefore, the cycle continues for another generation. White America shakes their heads at Black America and does not understand why they just cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even though their bootstraps are still being held down. In reality, the playing field is not close to equal.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright spoke to a pain and a stark reality that is obvious to his African American congregation. If America were truly a land of equal opportunity, there would be no reason for him to call for God to damn America. Would any White American willfully choose to change lives with a typical Black American for a decade? I doubt it. Because in truth we know that African Americans get a pretty raw deal. We know we could act white all we wanted, but we would still be discriminated in ways both overt and pernicious because of the color of our skin. It would not be by just a handful of crazy people, but by many people every day of our lives. For starts, we had better take the bus instead of trying to hail that cab.

We are asking African Americans to be like us even though the environment we provide is only partially welcoming to them. Burdened with much more baggage than most of us in White America, we somehow expect them all to soar toward the stratosphere, though most of us fail in this endeavor. In reality, this attitude shows our appalling naivety.

As Barack Obama has said, America claims to be the land of equal privilege and responsibility. The reality is that we are a long way from being there. The attitudes of White Americans, expressed in our vilification of Rev. Wright, shows just how large this gap actually is.

We should be reaching out in compassion to suffering souls like Rev. Wright, rather than condemning him. Jesus stepped outside his tribe. He hung out with beggars, lepers and prostitutes. In doing so, he learned about their suffering. The Buddha also had this experience and it changed his life. Reverend Wright’s words are evidence of a huge gaping psychological wound in our country. He speaks for many millions. All Barack Obama has asked of us is to have an honest discussion on the reality of race in America today. His remarkable speech was a first step in this discourse. Until we confront this pain, which affects all races, we will be like Sisyphus, doomed to keep repeating the same pointless mistakes into future generations.

Continue reading “A little empathy please”

So what’s the problem with Mitt Romney being a Mormon?

The Thinker by Rodin

From time to time, I rail about the various forms of discrimination and prejudice that are sadly still rife in our country. For example, I have complained about marriage discrimination, which in most states does not allow committed gay and lesbian couples to enjoy the same privileges as us heterosexuals. I have huffed at the State of Virginia for making adultery a crime. I have groused about nanny-ing legally adult college students, which at least here in the Old Dominion means that at certain public universities women can get antidepressants but not birth control pills from campus health clinics. I have railed about DC Voting Rights, or more specifically the lack of full voting rights in the District of Columbia.

As best I can tell Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and well-moneyed presidential candidate, is not a victim of religious discrimination. However, he is a victim of plain old fashioned and really quite mean spirited religious prejudice. Oh Lordy, Mitt happens to be a Mormon.

The horrors! Because he is a Mormon, Mitt must be one step away from having a second wife. Lord knows with all his millions that he is spending on his own presidential campaign that he could afford another one. In much of the South, despite his love of family and his generally conservative credentials the fundamentalist Christians are busy stuffing their ears when he comes to town. It is not just in the South where Mitt is getting something of a cold shoulder, but he probably receives more of it there than in other parts of the country. Many of us still respond to Mormons the same way we do to telephone solicitors.

Mitt is not trying to convert anyone to Mormonism, at least not as part of his run for the presidency. In fact, he is doing his best not to call attention to his Mormonism. He wants to be President of the United States, not head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Since reputedly Mitt is something of a born salesman, perhaps if he loses his White House bid he will start working his way up the Mormon church hierarchy instead. Right now he just wants to be treated (and here is a radical idea) just like anyone else running for this high office.

For many of us this will not do. Perhaps if Mitt were to stop believing in those special words allegedly transcribed by Joseph Smith these voters could embrace him. He could embrace the Southern Baptist Church instead. Or the Methodists. He could even convert to Roman Catholicism, since being a Catholic is no longer a bar to the presidency. Given that Mitt has a history of changing his political stripes to suit the times, why not require him to change his religious stripes in order to get our vote?

It does not look like that will happen. Mitt is a Mormon and is likely to always remain a Mormon. For him to give up Mormonism he also has to estrange himself from much of his family and his social circle. Mormonism is a faith, but like most of us born into a religion, it is also a way of life and a way of seeing the world. Maybe John McCain can be a bit disingenuous, calling himself a Methodist for years until he runs for the presidency. (Now he says he is a Baptist.) With few exceptions, it appears that once you have swallowed the Mormon Kool-Aid, you are a Mormon for life. I empathize. I swallowed the Roman Catholic Kool-Aid because I was born into a family of Catholics. I left the church shortly after turning adult. Nevertheless, Catholicism is still inside of me. Its perspective still colors much of my world. I will no more wholly excise Catholicism than Mitt would successfully excise his Mormonism.

So why are all these Christians upset with Mitt being a Mormon? Most of them are devout Christians, and Mitt would count himself as one of them. Just like his Southern Baptist friends, he wants to bring as many people to Jesus Christ as possible. He clearly loves his wife. He has raised a very healthy and happy family. He is very successful both politically and financially. However, many Christians just cannot see any Mormon as Christian. Why? Apparently, they think the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, was either delusional or a fraud. They do not believe he found those divinely placed silver tablets in upstate New York. They do not believe he was a messenger from God. They especially do not believe that the Book of Mormon is some sort of newest testament. Of course, the whole polygamy thing really upsets them, even though Mormons abandoned it long ago. Had society been more accommodating toward their lifestyle they would not have moved en masse to Utah. They were the 19th century’s version of Pilgrims, spurned by their own neighbors and forced to move far, far away to practice their faith.

So is it the silver tablet thing that gets traditional Christianity up in arms? Or is it the polygamy? Or is it both? My question is, “Why should it matter anyhow?” Have these Christians excised that portion of the Bible where Jesus speaks so lovingly about universal brotherhood? Jesus did not scorn the lepers, or the prostitutes or the Samaritans. He broke bread with them and spoke to them as equals. As for those silver tablets, is there any less evidence for them than the many miracles attributed to Jesus? Did Jesus really ascend into heaven? Did he really bring back the dead? Did he really feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some fish? According to the Bible, he did all these things along with the impressive feat of raising himself from the dead. It is in the Bible, but the Romans and others in that time and place apparently never bothered to write these remarkable feats down. My guess is that most Christians believe in Jesus’ miracles because they were taught to believe them. The same is true with Mitt. The evidence that Joseph Smith encountered those silver tablets with the Book of Mormon on them is no more ludicrous than Jesus feeding thousands with a few loaves and fishes.

The tenets of most faiths by definition are unprovable. That’s why they call it faith. Christians or anyone who are leery of Mitt Romney based on his religion need to look in the mirror. The only thing that may make your faith more “reasonable” than someone else’s is that more people agree with your faith. That proves nothing. Except for a few dissenters like me, back in March 2003 most Americans were convinced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and our national security was in peril. They were wrong. Being part of a consensus does not mean you are right. It just means you have many people who agree with you.

Now it just so happens that I have my issues with Mormons too, particularly in the way they treat their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. However, I refuse to say their faith is anymore unreasonable or unworthy than anyone else’s faith, including my own Unitarian Universalism. The reality is that while many of us believe in our souls in the rightness and correctness of our faith, our faiths are not provable.

Our founding fathers refused to establish any religious test in order for someone to hold office. A new president is not required to take the presidential oath on a Bible, or even to add, “So help me God” to the oath (which in fact is not even in the oath of office). He or she does not even have to swear to uphold the oath, just to affirm it. Our founding fathers were smart. They knew that a person’s religious faith or lack thereof had no relationship to their ability to serve in a public office. Instead, we were invited to judge someone based on their history, their character and their views.

For my part, I will try to vote in the spirit of our founding fathers. While I may not like Mormonism in particular, I also know that it is no more unreasonable than any other religion out there. Like most faiths, it has many admirable qualities. If I discriminate against someone solely based on his or her religion, I am doing myself and my country a disservice. We have huge problems to deal with in this country. We need to most competent people possible in public office. Ruling out someone based solely on their religion (or lack thereof) simply adds to the considerable odds that we will not get the person we need for our next president.

Cut Mitt some slack.