Ten Thoughts on Monuments and Racism in America


1) As humans, our strength has always been in numbers, that is to say, tribes. We are, therefore, inclined towards tribalism.
2) When people incorporate, they can achieve bigger goals (Two minds are better than one). The bigger the tent the better. Diversity is therefore better (if you can make it work), because diversity is always going to be bigger.
3) Ideas grow the tent beyond rudimentary forms of tribalism like race or ethnicity. Religion is good at this. Muhammad, for example, brought fractured, warring tribes in the Middle East under the banner of Islam. Or look at the biggest group in the world, Christianity: "In Christ there is neither man nor woman, Jew nor Gentile," and as King later added, "Black nor white." Another big tent is nationality, which in America is more or less defined by the creed "All men are created equal." This is a banner that enables people of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations to identify with "America."
4) This is one reason why both religion and politics have been successful evolutionary vehicles. And I see no reason they can't continue to be as we move forward. I think "America" can do a lot to solve the problem of racism.
5) America is a baby on the world stage. Compared to England, France, China, and India, for example, we are cultural infants. This makes it more difficult to identify what it means exactly to be an American and effectively relate to it.
6) It seems to me that identifying with "America" is largely about accepting her history. America is so young this is difficult to a certain degree even for white men, but it would seem even more difficult for African-Americans and women. Their inclusion in the already young project of defining what it means to be an American is even more recent. Furthermore, much of their place in American history has been marked by oppression and marginalization. My guess is they sometimes struggle to identify with American history because it does not include them and because that history often venerates the people that explicitly denied them that right, not to mention that these forces (racism and misogyny) are still active today. These two points--a history that does not bear their mark and one that venerates their oppressors--make it even more difficult for them to identify with "America" than a white man.
7) I see no way around this problem other than a willingness to part ways with those venerated figures of our past that are exclusively identified with oppression. We cannot add voices to our history. We denied them and that chapter is closed. I see a couple of constructive ways to move forward (To be clear, I'm not talking about the greater problem of racism, just the stand-off over our history and its monuments--though I do think this will do something to help more people identify with being an "American" and therefore feel less divided by race).
8) First, search our past for voices that must be elevated. People like Abigail Adams, Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name a few, are not lost on us, but have far more to offer than has been extracted. They need to be taught as American history, not women's history or black history, because they are instrumental in shaping modern America. I am sure this list could be increased exponentially. And doing so is not a meaningless exercise in political correctness and or an appeasing celebration of diversity. It is a practical effort to grow the tent and make America a bigger and better idea. I would also spend money building memorials to Lynching victims and Slavery museums.
9) Certain figures we will have to part ways with. People like Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, nicknamed "John C. Kill a Coon" have no place in the public sphere. History books, museums: yes. Public grounds, no. They are divisive; they literally divide us or shrink the American tent. Robert E. Lee is the most controversial, I suppose. This is largely owed to his character which was, in his day, venerated by both Northerners and Southerners alike. Still, he is divisive because he is the figurehead of the Confederacy, which fought on the side of slavery. If you privately admire the character of Robert E Lee, that is your business, but when we put a statue of him on public grounds that is us as a society endorsing him. This endorsement is not shared by all, and makes it difficult for a large chunk of people to identify with the endorsing body, a body they have equal claim to. We can move the Lee monuments to a Civil War memorial ground or find another creative solution.
10) People like Thomas Jefferson are also lumped into this category. I don't think the comparison is just. In the public mind, Lee is almost entirely identified with the Civil War. Jefferson's career is not monopolized by slavery, though he did own hundreds of slaves. Thomas Jefferson cannot be discarded without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Jefferson's name calls forth a great many accomplishments including religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence, which are so deeply ingrained in what it means to be American that no intelligible idea of "America" can be formed with referencing both. We cannot utter one word about America without mentioning his name, even if that name must be appendixed with facts about his ownership of slaves. Instead we must claim Jefferson's ideas as our own, and hold America and even Jefferson himself to account for them, just as Martin Luther King did in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Obviously, I am not saying that Jefferson must be venerated by all. I am simply saying he can't be discarded. However, there are other figures central to our founding that I think are worthy of respect AND do not bring with them Jefferson's baggage: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, for example. Lincoln too, in a sense, is a Founder of "The" United States (vs these United States) and is also worthy recipient of our respect.
These are just some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head. What do you think? What would you add/take away?

Racism by Executive Order


Racism is an evil and corrosive thread with a deep and enduring legacy in America.

This statement to many white Americans is surprising and controversial. The shock and subsequent surge of indignance often sends skeptics hiding behind the familiar refrain of indulgent liberal sensitivities and charges of political correctness.

However, it should come as no surprise: America has a long and vicious history of racism. Under the cruel lash of the whip, millions of slaves were robbed of their humanity. They were taken as property, forced to labor under brutal conditions, often deprived of even the basic right to love and care for the children. This level of barbarism requires an anesthetizing rationalization, a program of indoctrination that subdues the humanity of all those culpable. This program is called white supremacy. It is a doctrine meant to inculcate not only the belief that white people are by virtue of race superior, but that other races are subhuman and therefore deserving of inhumane treatment.  This continued on through Jim Crow. To the conscientious dismay of many white people, the doctrine of white supremacy was not abolished by the Fourteenth Amendment or passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is part of our cultural inheritance.      

Following this weekend's events in Charlottesville, it should come as no surprise that racism is alive and well. The overt hatred, bigotry, and ignorance chased a climax through a maze of civil unrest, conventional violence, and an act of domestic terrorism to finally arrive at a peak level of disgust with President Donald Trump's "Many Sides" speech.  He said, "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country."

And with those words America felt a public shame fall over her she has not felt in many years.
In November of 1991, then President George H.W. Bush offered a few choice words for a holocaust denying, white nationalist Klansman seeking the Governorship in my home state of Louisiana:
'When someone asserts the Holocaust never took place, then I don't believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust. When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society. When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign."
Of course the subject of his disgust is David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Donald Trump struggled to disavow during the 2016 campaign. Although Trump did eventually, under public pressure, flippantly distance himself from the anti-Semitic loon, he never forcefully repudiated him as Bush did in '91. Instead, Trump played footsies with Duke and his sympathizers. And in Charlottesville, Duke, who attended the rally, repaid the favor: "This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump."

Trump's "Many Sides" speech brought forth a new low for modern America because it failed to clearly denounce the neo-Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists and therefore laid cover for them. The new face of the White Nationalist movement and one of the organizers of this event, Richard Spencer, tweeted Trump's statement as proof of the President's approval:

Donald Trump is usually hyperbolic and vicious when attacking someone. His condemnation of the alt-right, White Nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen is so reserved and equivocal that it is impossible to discern which side he stands on, which is precisely the point. This is no accident. Trump has never to my knowledge beat around the bush when attacking someone. In fact, his attacks on his own Attorney General and most loyal surrogate, Jeff Sessions, were more pointed than his rebuke of the swastika-clad terrorists in Charlottesville. When juxtaposed to his sensational and absurd rhetoric regarding Islam and immigrants, it is hard to see either as anything but a dog-whistle to white nationalist xenophobes.  

The President's critics are quick to say he endorses the views of Duke, Spencer, and their fascist brigade of white nationalists. This may or may not be true. But it is beside the point. Donald Trump is not an ideologue. He doesn't appear to even possess ideals or values. He acts purely on the basis of self-interest. So even if he did subscribe to Spencer's worldview, he would still act in his own self-interest. If it was politically advantageous to him, he would have clearly denounced them and their actions. But he didn't. Nor did he praise or defend them. If he had, a chunk of his base would surely have defected. Instead he waxed obscure, enabling both sides to draw their own conclusions about his statement.

I suspect Trump's tepid response is in large part owed to the fact that all he has left is his base, and this group of people represent a significant portion of his base. Sure there were only a few hundred white nationalists marching in the streets, but there are many thousands more at home who identify with their cause. Few want to be labeled a racist in the community of their peers. People want to closet their demons, but they do not want to abolish them. No one wants to be so angry that they lose control and lash out in violence when someone says something they find disagreeable, but few are willing to part ways with the more moderate, socially-acceptable form of anger that manifests as barbed gossip. But in point of fact, both parties are driven by anger. Similarly, few are willing to march down the street bellowing chants of "White Pride," but millions are willing to cast a vote for someone they believe will advance their white nationalist agenda—though they'd likely call it something like, oh, I don't know....Make America Great Again?

Remember, in 2016 David Duke ran for a Senate seat in Louisiana and received 3% of the vote. With a half-dozen other Republicans in the field, 58,581 Louisianians voted for a former Klan leader in 2016. No where near that number would have showed up to a white nationalist rally organized by him, but in the privacy of a voting booth they pulled the lever for him. Trump is the beneficiary of a similar phenomenon, but on a national scale. In the 2016 election 3% of the vote would have equaled roughly 4 million votes, more than enough to tip it in favor of Clinton. Trump's politics prevent him from outright denouncing them, but by failing to do so he lends credibility to their movement. The next "Unite the Right" rally may be attended by thousands, instead of a few hundred.

For reasons of political expediency and self-interest, Donald Trump is using the weight of the Oval Office to legitimize white nationalism. There is an ever-darkening cloud of suspicion parked over his White House. With each day comes news of developments in the Russian investigation that bring Mueller and his team closer to Trump and his family. Don't forget, you can't bring criminal charges against the President of the United States. You move to impeach, which is a political process, not a criminal proceeding. Standing between him and possible impeachment is his base—and that is it!. Therefore, self-interest and political expediency are probably intertwined in the service of survival  for Donald Trump. He is leveraging decades of progress, the dignity and rights of millions, the conscience of all, as well as American prestige to salvage his  name.

By no means do I believe that all or even most white people are sympathetic to the ideas of white supremacy. I do, however, believe that a large swath of decent white people are willing to over look racism because it makes them unconformable, or ignore it in an election year because they want a tax cut and don't see racism as an immediate existential threat. The option to overlook or prioritize racism is a feature of white privilege.

Many well-intentioned white people see their intentions blunted by the unconformable reality of confronting racism in day-to-day life. The apathetic rallying cry of liberal by-standers is "What am I am going to do about it?" In "Dear Theodosia," a popular track from the Hamilton musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda conveys the deep longing of every parent to make the world a better place for their children with the following words: "We'll bleed and fight for you, we'll make it right for you."

Obviously, I am not suggesting we take up our muskets, rather that we have to organize, protest, hold our elected officials accountable, and, yes, our co-workers too. We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations wherever they present themselves. Culture is the vehicle by which our ideas and customs are passed on from one generation to the next, making the water-cooler and the bus stop the front line in the war against racism and courage the weapon of choice.  We have to do whatever we can to draw attention to the horrible truth of racism's enduring presence in the hope that our children will not have to.

Google, Political Correctness, and Much Ado About Nothing.


A few thoughts on the Google controversy:

First, thank you Donald Trump for dialing it back long enough for me to turn my attention toward something else. It is nice to have a break.

An engineer at Google named James Damore circulated a controversial 3,300 word memorandum, decrying the hyper-liberal bias of Google and suggesting that women are less suited for advanced careers, particularly in software engineering, due to their biology. It sounds to me like he struck a few notes that are by definition "sexist." I want to put aside the details of his memo and look at the bigger picture for a moment. 

Had Damore published that memo on a personal blog prior to applying for a job with Google and been denied the job for no reason other than that publication, it would in principle be no different than relieving him of his duties solely for circulating the memo while employed by Google. Therefore, it is in principle no different than NFL teams refusing to hire Colin Kaepernick because they are afraid of the effects his presence will have on team morale and cohesion. It seems you may either agree that NFL teams and Google Executives are both within their rights or both are exceeding their rights, but not one without the other.

Google is being accused of "group think." This seems obvious. Yes, they are engaged in group think. They have invested millions of dollars in what their critics pejoratively call "group think," only they call it corporate culture. To be honest, I don't think they fired Damore because he thought these things. I think they fired him because he circulated those ideas in a memo, which threatened both the Google brand in the court of public opinion and the corporate culture they have cultivated over the years. Google's interests are first and foremost with their bottom line, not social issues. They are far more interested in protecting their brand and the culture of creativity and productivity that has made them one of the most successful companies on the planet. Perhaps, you don't believe their decision is in the interest of creativity and productivity--and you might be right--but the evidence rests with Google's success.

Furthermore, people talk about "group think" like it is a new phenomenon. I would remind them of religion, which issues the harsh punishments of heresy and excommunication for breaking from the mold of their group thought. In recent times you can look to the Southern Baptist Convention's handling of Russel Moore's criticism of Trump for an example of religious group think (as well as political), though it did not reach the severity of heresy and excommunication.

The world religions--for better or worse--are the most sophisticated examples of group think this planet has ever seen. Coming in a close second is political parties. Both overlap in another favorite target of group think accusations, universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton all began as institutions with loyalties to one denomination or another. Group think at our places of higher learning is hardly a new thing. Ralph Waldo Emerson was practically excommunicated from Harvard for 30+ years after giving a speech the Divinity School administration found distasteful in 1838. Yes, many of our institutions of higher learning exhibit similar biases toward politics now. I think it often gets blown out of proportion by adherents--student bodies rioting in protest of a disagreeable speaker--and conservatives who bemoan it as some new form of political correctness.

In my estimation political correctness is sometimes confused with just being a decent person. But there certainly are instances where it is taken too far. People should have the right to respectfully offer thoughtful criticism without fear of being labeled a bigot. Often this is an attempt to hide a particular position behind a taboo, an attempt to make it improper, for example, to question Islam. However, this is not new either. Religions have long since tried to hide their beliefs behind taboos, claiming for them a special class of ideation that is off limits. Skillful right-wing politicians like Ted Cruz try to hide their politics behind religious beliefs because in casual conversation the ban on questioning someone's religious convictions gives his politics extra shelf life. Similarly, left-wing politicians try to hide their politics behind certain social sensitivities. It is our job to sift through this garbage and figure out when "political correctness" is really a call to respectful of others rights, and when it is a political devise being used by politicos to advance their agenda.

It is not that I agree with either side of this debate. I think both sides often blow it out of the water. I am simply saying it is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I think if we look at it through the lens of human history we will find "group think" is probably getting a lot better than worse.

What do you think?

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