Tag Archives: race

Monday Musings: Through the Looking Glass

[Let me begin by saying this: I know the President is ill. I hope he recovers; I understand it’s possible that he’ll take a turn for the worse. I hope the First Lady and the growing number of public officials who have tested positive for coronavirus recover as well. None of what follows is meant to be insensitive to the President’s condition. But neither will I give him more consideration than he has given to the millions of Americans who have fallen ill, or to the more than two hundred thousand who have died from Covid-19.]

We are, at this point, through the looking glass.

2020 has become so ridiculous, so laden with crisis, so fraught with fear and anger and confusion, that it risks turning into a caricature of itself. The Presidential campaign alone has morphed into a farce — a farce with far-reaching implications for economic stability; for racial, social, and sexual justice; for the health and safety of all Americans; and for the very survival of the planet. But a farce, nevertheless.

In my recent posts and my minimal appearances on other platforms, I have hinted at the emotional struggles in my life. My family has been touched by Covid, which has been scary, but, so far, not nearly as bad as it might have been. I have struggled to write and grappled with industry-wide issues. Again, I’ve been luckier than some, and less fortunate than others. And I have been obsessed to the point of panic and despair with the campaign and with the constant bloviation of our infant-in-chief.

It is this last that has had me in retreat from social media and news over the past couple of weeks. Yet, this is also what I am musing on this morning. Because in stepping back from the febrile headlines that assault us day after day, I find myself lamenting a much deeper issue.

Donald Trump is a menace. We know this. He is a White supremacist. He represents an existential threat to the norms and customs of our republic. He is boorish and crude, unintelligent and incurious, corrupt and dishonest and utterly unconcerned for the well-being of the public he is supposed to serve. But perhaps most damaging is the simple fact that he is a spectacle. Each day we are subjected to some new outrage. This campaign, for better or worse, is about him, about his failures and his failings. The good news is that a hard focus on Trump may well be enough to end this shit-storm of a Presidency.

Unfortunately, such a campaign does a disservice to our country. We face serious problems. We should be searching for solutions to climate change, engaging in a meaningful discussion of systemic racism, cementing gains in the fight for LGBTQ rights, working toward pay equity and an end to systemic sexism, building a fairer, stronger economy, and tackling a host of other issues that will shape not only our lives, but those of our children and generations to follow.

Do I want the world to see Trump’s tax returns and the dark secrets contained within them? Sure. Do I see some Karmic justice in his positive test for Covid-19? Yes, I do, even as I hope that he and his wife recover. Am I disgusted by his nod and wink toward the White nationalist Proud Boys? Damn right.

Mostly, though, I’m pissed that these things are “issues.”

Politics is always messy, and Presidential campaigns always entertain their share of nonsense controversies and titillating distractions. The problem is, with this President those things are all we have. Because that’s what he wants. Sure, he complains of being mistreated by the press and demonized by his political opponents, but really all he cares about is attention. Positive attention, negative attention — he doesn’t differentiate. As long as he is the center of the conversation, he’s happy. He doesn’t want to discuss real issues. That would demand work, preparation, concentration. And then the conversation wouldn’t be about him. It would be about us, about our lives, our families, our futures — things that don’t interest him.

Maybe it was inevitable that we would elect a man like this. In an age of reality television and ubiquitous social media, it’s not surprising that we should have a reality-star President who is utterly self-involved. More, Americans often look for qualities in a new President that were absent in his (and someday, please, her) predecessor. Policy-wonk Bill Clinton was followed by George W. Bush, who was not a detail guy, and who was, in turn, followed by the wonkish, erudite Barack Obama. Trump is the anti-Obama: a white racist, devoid of charm, integrity, compassion, and erudition.

That might be too easy an explanation. Honestly, I am too exhausted to care anymore. This President has worn me down. I would love to be passionate about the prospect of a Joe Biden Administration. I wish I had been more excited about all the candidates who sought the Democratic nomination, but Trump ruined even that for so many of us. Yes, we had our preferences, and Bernie Sanders’ supporters were nearly as fervent this time around as they were in 2016. In the end, though, we cared only about finding someone who could beat Trump. Overcoming this blight on our nation was more important than the aspirations and enthusiasm that ought to animate an election season. Sad.

So, here we are, having been confronted with this clown-show, day after day, month after month, for four long years. And, if we’re smart and lucky, no longer than that.

Monday Musings: Race — Again, and Still, and As Long As It Takes

This past week, I listened to an NPR interview with some Trump voters in Florida. One woman, who swore she couldn’t be a racist because she was of a non-Caucasian ethnicity herself, spoke of the George Floyd killing and the need “to get all the information. Like if he was doing drugs or something like that.” And I wanted to ask her, in all seriousness, what drugs could Mister Floyd have done that would justify a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes until he died?

The Department of Justice this week released additional information about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So, too, did the police union to which the officers involved belong. It seems that Mister Blake admitted to officers that he had a knife, and that a knife was later found in the car. And I would like to ask the police union and the DOJ, how big would the knife have to be to justify a police officer shooting Mister Blake in the back seven times at close range?

Yesterday, video surfaced on Twitter of Brandon Marshall, a former NFL All-Pro and current ESPN television commentator, having the police called on him by security officers in the subdivision in Florida where he had just purchased a new home. Mister Marshall’s name, apparently, was not yet on a list of people authorized to access the gated community. So the security guys, rather than checking with him, calling the real estate agent, or taking any number of remedial steps that could have cleared up the confusion, called the police. Mister Marshall’s children were in the car and witnessed the entire incident. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But I would like to ask the security guys – and I would hope they would answer honestly – would they have done the same thing if he was White?

I would rather be writing about puppies, or making a top ten list of my favorite Star Trek: TNG episodes, or finding new ways to call Donald Trump obnoxious and incompetent – because that never gets old. I don’t want to be writing about systemic racism yet again. And if I, as an ally, am tired of writing about it and drawing people’s attention to the problem, I can hardly imagine how exhausted my Black friends must be, not only by the conversation, but by living with yet another tragedy, with new aggressions small and large, with the constant emotional abuse that comes with being Black in America.

None of us who are White, no matter how empathetic or sympathetic, can begin to imagine what it is like. It is unrelenting. Try to think back on your worst moments of humiliation, of fear, of righteous anger at injustice directed your way, of frustration with slights that you cannot control and cannot escape. And then imagine putting up with those things all the time. Every. Single. Day. Maybe that comes close.

I’ve had online conversations with several friends the past few days. We’re all progressives, all terrified by the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump in the White House. And we were discussing a point made by a political commentator to the effect that some of the optics surrounding protests in D.C. and in Kenosha, and elsewhere – property damage, confrontations with police, inconveniencing city residents, etc.– might wind up hurting the Biden campaign. None of us want that, of course. But I have to ask of myself, if I were Black, would I care?

Yes, Donald Trump is a White supremacist; I believe that with all my heart. And no, Joe Biden is not. I think a Biden Presidency would be better for all Americans, and for non-White Americans in particular. But systemic racism has been around for a long, long time. Police have been persecuting Black Americans for a long, long time. Black Americans have felt the effects of these things under Republican Presidents and Democratic, under the first Black President, and under all the others.

Is “No justice, no peace” the most political convenient slogan for Democrats right now? Probably not.

You go tell that to the protesters. Because I can’t bring myself to do so.

I don’t have any answers. I didn’t earlier in the year, either.

I can say the words and mean them: Black Lives Matter.

I can and do try to explain to my White friends who don’t get it why it’s so important that we support BLM, that we set our privilege aside and recognize all the ways in which our society and politics and economy favor Whites over non-Whites, that we stop taking personally discussions of rampant racism in our culture. But that only gets us so far, and at a pace that feels glacial.

I can say to my Black friends, I hear you, I see you, I support you.

And I can say to all, please vote.

Photo Friday: Late-Afternoon Vista, and a Message

Last Friday, at the end of another week of work and screaming headlines, I spent my late afternoon, exploring our little college town, enjoying the golden light and ever-changing cloudscapes. As I’ve mentioned before, our town is perched atop the Cumberland Plateau, and we are fortunate to have several viewpoints that offer dramatic vistas of the valley and extensions of the plateau. This particular one, which faces north, is called Green’s View. Nancy and I lived a short walk from it many, many years ago, when our first daughter was just a baby. Despite the passage of more than twenty years, the view has remained stunningly beautiful.

This has been sad, painful week — another police shooting, more protests, another senseless act of gun violence, a national convention that offered little more than falsely apocalyptic warnings, blindly revisionist history, and a cult of worship for a man who deserves anything but.

And so I offer this simple image as a reminder — to you and for myself — that beauty remains in our world, that even as things seem to be getting darker and harder, there remain places of peace and solace untouched by the passage of years. We will get through this. Better days lie ahead.

I wish you a peaceful weekend filled with laughter and love. Stay safe, be kind to one another.Green's View, Late Afternoon, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Challenging Ourselves

I will admit that my first impulse for this Monday Musings post was to write about something other than race and politics. Not because those things aren’t still on my mind. They consume me. But rather because I was thinking, “I’ve written about White privilege two weeks in a row. I don’t want to seem like I’m harping on it.” [Here are links to my post from two weeks ago and last week.]

My next thought, right after that one, was, “Why the hell not?”

College Town Protest March, David B. CoeThis past Friday our little college town had a peaceful protest march followed by a rally on the college quad. It was a terrific event: somber, but also uplifting. Several people spoke, including my wife, who is provost of the university. Most of the speakers were Black; Nancy is not. And her message was directed at the many White allies who were in attendance. Showing up is great, she said. But it’s not enough. We who consider ourselves allies of those fighting for racial justice, but who also carry enormous privilege, have to challenge ourselves to act, to fight every day for a better world. And she, in turn, challenged us. Think of things you can do. Commit yourselves.

She and I have been making donations to organizations that fight for racial justice. We are committed to voting, to supporting candidates who will help put an end to systemic racism. We have reached out to our Black friends to make sure they’re doing all right. We are more than willing to have difficult conversations with family and friends. We would be willing to have those conversations with our daughters as well, but, frankly, we have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.

But after those things, I found myself wondering in response to Nancy’s challenge, what else I could do? The answer came to me pretty quickly; it should be obvious to anyone who knows me.

I write.

That’s what I do.

I’m not saying that race and racial politics will be the subject of every Monday post for the rest of time. But one of the great problems with American politics is that we as a nation have no attention span at all. We become obsessed with the issue of the day, the tragedy of the week – a mass shooting prompts calls for serious conversations about gun control. Until the next police shooting exposes for the thousandth time the need for a meaningful conversation about race. Until the next ridiculous or outrageous Tweet from the Infant-In-Chief prompts renewed obsession with the campaign and the latest polling numbers. Until a new spike in Covid-19 cases reminds us of the devastating toll the virus is exacting. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

My thoughts about this post are symptomatic of that short attention span. Two weeks in a row writing about race? Yikes! Time for another post about my five favorite rock ‘n roll albums.

And more to the point, that short attention span is an expression of privilege. I have the luxury of being able to turn away from the conversation about systemic racism if I want to, because I’m White. Because I don’t have to worry that my next traffic stop could prove fatal. Because while the unemployment rate among my people is high, it’s not at 16.8%, as it is for Blacks. Because my health care is affordable and readily available.

I can eventually look away after the next shooting sparks a new debate on guns, because while gun violence should concern all of us, Blacks are (according to the Giffords Law Center) ten times – TEN TIMES – more likely than Whites to be murdered with a firearm.

I can be distracted from the pandemic, because while Whites get the disease and die from it, preliminary data indicates that we are proportionally less likely to get sick than are Blacks, and we are far less likely to die from the illness than are Blacks and Latinos.

We in the White community can afford to lose interest, to get distracted, to move on to other issues. But we, as White allies in the struggle for racial justice, can’t. Just this weekend in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police in an incident that began with him sleeping in his car. I guarantee you, that is a sentence that has never been written about a white man.

And so, yes, I am writing about race again. Because once we open our eyes to the prevalence of bias and bigotry and harmful stereotypes (and it is another expression of lifelong privilege that we have the choice of whether or not to do this) we can find them everywhere. The only way to avoid them is to ignore them, or to be utterly oblivious. Race creeps into everything. The next time you’re watching TV, pay close attention to the commercials. Look at how race is treated. Watch for the racial sub-narratives. Be attuned to the archetypes. Once you start to see them, you can’t stop. Listen to sports commentary (if and when we ever get to watch sports again). Pay attention to the adjectives used to describe White and Black players. How many times are Whites referred to as “hard workers”? How many times is Black success credited to “natural athletic ability”?

“Why,” we hear people ask, “do they have to make everything about race?”

And the answer is, because people of color in this country – and throughout much of the world – inhabit a different reality from the one we Whites live in. In their world, racism is omnipresent. It is unavoidable. It is the knee on the neck. Being an ally means looking and seeing, listening and hearing, discussing and speaking out. It means answering my wife’s challenge by pushing ourselves outside of comfort and complacency, and committing ourselves.

And for me, it means writing.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: On Race, Privilege, and Uncomfortable Conversations

As I white progressive, I have struggled with how to write this post. I know that the white progressives in my audience will struggle to read and process it. All of this, I believe, is to the good.

This past week, as I discussed with my adult children the protests taking place in cities across the country, my older daughter sent me an article called “I, Racist,” written by John Metta back in 2015. This is an extraordinary piece and I urge you to read it right now, before continuing with my post. Seriously, read the article. We’ll wait.

Much of what follows here is my working through of Metta’s piece – the thoughts reflected here are more his than mine. There are four main points to Metta’s argument that strike me as central to all discussions of race in America.

First, “Black people think in terms of we because [they] live in a society where the social and political structures interact with [them] as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals.”

Second, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”

Third, “the reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad…. People of color, especially Black people… are seen as fundamentally bad.”

And finally, perhaps most important: “White people, every single one of [us], are complicit in this racism because [we] benefit directly from it.”

Last week, my Monday Musings post focused on White privilege, and I suppose this week’s does as well. The truth is, I am thinking all of this through as I write, so forgive me if this comes across as a work in progress rather than as something more finished. I know better than to claim that my thoughts on race and Metta’s essay are well-organized or comprehensive. Like so many of us right now, I am processing, figuring things out, asking myself questions. The fact is, Metta’s observations make for uncomfortable reading for Whites because they are so very hard to refute. But that is also the source of the article’s power and value.

Let’s start with points one and two. Once we accept the notion that Blacks think in terms of “we” while Whites enjoy the luxury of interacting with the world as individuals, we begin to understand how the conversation about race in America has failed so utterly to move our society forward. As Metta points out, Whites take such conversations personally. We see in the notion of systemic racism an attack on ourselves – which leads us to turn conversations about race into conversations about our bruised feelings. White privilege is by definition systemic. It filters into every element of our lives – our health, our shelter, our our finances, our relationships with institutions and their representatives (including police), and on and on.

And, I have to say, most of the progressive Whites I know are open to conversations about privilege and its prevalence. To a point. The problem comes when we turn to the notion of complicity. As Metta puts it, we Whites are unable to “differentiate [our] participation within a racist system” from accusations of being racists ourselves. We conflate the two, turn the conversation to our sense of being attacked and accused, and therefore shut down the discussion entirely. I know this pattern. I have too often gone down that path myself.

Hearing that we are complicit in a racist society hurts. No doubt. Our first response is to deny, to draw a clear line distinguishing ourselves from defenders of the the Confederate Flag, from the idiots who call 911 on people of color in parks and stores and “nice” (re. White) neighborhoods, from those who assault and murder. Defensiveness, though, helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t change reality.

In fact, I would argue this: If only we Whites could STOP taking these conversations personally, if only we could back away from our individual privilege and begin to look at our world and society as part of a larger “we” instead of always as “I, me, my” – in other words, if we could talk about the issues more like Metta argues that Blacks do – we might find that conversations about race progress far more smoothly. Our privilege is actually no privilege at all. It hurts us. It cripples our society. It hurts the people of color around us.

Recently, I happened upon a brief (one minute long), wonderful video that first came out in 2016 featuring educator and activist Jane Elliott. She is White, speaking to an auditorium filled with White people, and she asks them to stand if they would be willing to trade places with Black people in America. Not one person stands up. She asks a second time. No one. And then she tells them the obvious: that they know there is a racial problem in America, and they are willing to accept its consequences for others, but not for themselves. That is privilege.

Only when we can accept that our society is inherently racist, that we as Whites benefit every day, in every way, from that racism – only then can we start to improve our country for all Americans. It’s not enough to differentiate ourselves from the conspicuous racists we see on TV and read about in the headlines. It’s not enough to say “but my heart is in the right place,” even if it is. We have to be willing to do more – something my daughters have been telling me for some time now. We have to donate to organizations that support those who are fighting racism. We have to stand up and say to our fellow Whites, “Open your eyes and ears – see what is happening, listen to the people who live this racist reality every day.” And instead of saying, “I am better than those other racists because I have not done those terrible things,” we have to say, “From this day forward, I will be better than I have been, and here is how.”

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

Photo Friday: Not My Image, but Wow…

Justice and hope
Photo by Steve Helber – Associated Press

For this week’s photo, I couldn’t see myself posting a pretty picture from Nancy’s garden or nearby natural sites. Instead, I offer a photo from AP photographer Steve Helber. This is, to me, a remarkable image from this week’s protests, so heartbreaking and yet also filled with hope. Plus, the symbolism of “Justice” upside down… A really incredible photograph.

Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful, thoughtful weekend.

Monday Musings: A True Story of Privilege

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue.

This is a true story. Every detail. I swear.

When Nancy and I were in graduate school, we lived in Mountain View, California, about seven miles south of Palo Alto and the Stanford campus. Some days we rode our bikes to school, but mostly we drove. About two thirds of the way back to home from campus, on the left side of El Camino Real, the main thoroughfare running through that part of the South Bay, there was a strip mall. It was actually more square than “strip” – a horseshoe of storefronts surrounding a parking area. It included a grocery store, a drug store, a few restaurants, some specialty stores and clothing stores. It included a Tower Records. It included a bank.

One day in early spring – California spring; it was technically still winter – I went home at midday to work on my dissertation. I had done some teaching in the morning. I might have had office hours. But I was going home to write. On the way home, I stopped at the Tower Records. I had a birthday coming up, and I probably was looking for one CD or another to add to my growing collection. I remember that I didn’t buy anything that day.

As I pulled back onto the El Camino, turning left across traffic, a police car eased in behind me and began to follow. I was pretty sure that I had made my turn legally, so I didn’t think too much about it. After about a block, though, he turned on his lights. I pulled over at the first opportunity, my heart rate speeding up a bit. I rolled down my window, expecting the police officer to approach me on the driver’s side.

He didn’t. He opened his door and got out of the car, but he remained behind the open door, his right hand out of sight. From there, he called to me to get out of the car, to move to the sidewalk, and to brace my hands against the building there. By now, I was truly scared. I did exactly as I was told. The cop approached me, as did two more guys in uniform and one plainclothes cop. I hadn’t see the others arrive. All of them had their weapons drawn. They frisked me, asked me to remove my wallet, the one thing I was carrying, from my pocket. They wanted to know if the car was mine, and they had me show them the registration.

The more they talked to me, the calmer they grew. My panic subsided. They asked if they could search my car – a Toyota Corolla hatchback – and I gave them permission to look through every inch of it. I asked what they thought I had done and they told me that someone had just robbed the bank next to the Tower Records. The suspect fit my description ALMOST to a “T”: brown curly hair, beard and mustache, blue t-shirt and jeans. But – and this is why they were feeling calmer – the guy was described as being at least six feet tall. I’m five-seven on a good day, with a strong tailwind.

By this point, people were watching us – a crowd had gathered. Flashing lights, cops with their weapons in hand, a guy being frisked on the street. Of course we’d drawn attention. But after about ten minutes of conversation – “Where do you work? Where do you live? How long have you been in the Bay Area? Where are you going now? Why did you stop at the shopping plaza?” – they let me go. I got back in my car, shaken, but feeling that I would have one helluva story to tell Nancy that night. As I drove home to our apartment, I was almost certain someone was following me, probably the plainclothes cop checking on my story. When I pulled into the apartment complex, he drove on by. I never saw any of them again, and I don’t know if they ever caught the guy who robbed the bank.

That was on March 8, 1991.

How can I be so sure of that? Remember what I said at the outset: Every detail of this is true.

I know the date because it was the day after videotape of the Rodney King beating first was aired on a news broadcast in Los Angeles.

During the entirety of my encounter with the police, I never once feared for my life or my physical safety. Yes, I was scared, but that was because I didn’t understand why I had been stopped or why they had their weapons drawn. Throughout the incident, the police treated me with courtesy and respect.

Privilege comes in many forms and manifests itself in many ways. That day, my privilege kept me safe. It kept me from being beaten or shot. It kept me from being handcuffed or put on the ground. I have no doubt that, had I been black, had the suspect been black, I would have been cuffed, face down on the sidewalk, a knee in the small of my back, if not on my neck. It wouldn’t have mattered how short I was.

But really the larger point is this: I don’t need to go back nearly thirty years to find examples of how being white gives me privileges denied to those whose skin is brown or black.

As most of you know, I birdwatch. On spring mornings, I walk through local neighborhoods with my binoculars, peering into bushes and trees. Sometimes, I’m sure, it looks like I’m skulking rather than birdwatching. We don’t have to imagine what the reaction to this would be if I were black. Just look at what happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park last week.

Then again, if I were black, I wouldn’t need to be birdwatching to draw unwanted attention from ordinary citizens and law enforcement. I take walks just about everyday. Walking while black can get a person harassed. It can get a person arrested. It can get a person killed. And yet, it’s safer than running while black. Ask Ahmaud Arbery. It’s safer than driving while black. Ask Philando Castile, or Sam Dubose, or Alton Sterling, or too many others.

If I were black, but everything else about me and my finances was the same, I would 1) have a lower credit score; 2) pay a higher mortgage; 3) pay more for every car I’ve ever bought; 4) have a harder time booking places to stay when we travel; 5) have a harder time being seated in restaurants; 6) have less access to affordable quality health care; 7) have a lower life expectancy. These are not guesses on my part. This is fact, supported by research and data.

Privilege, as I say, takes many forms. All of it, though, leads to the same place: The freedoms I am able to take for granted as a white man in this county – the freedom to enjoy American prosperity, the freedom to avail myself of the health care system politicians are so fond of boasting about, the freedom to walk and run and drive and recreate without fear for myself or my family – all of these freedoms are denied to black Americans. There is no freedom when you fear agents of the State. There is no freedom when your economic viability is subject to the prejudices of strangers who wield the power to destroy you. There is no freedom when white people in parks, in playgrounds, in college campus common areas, in malls and supermarkets and Starbucks, have the power to sic the police on anyone they deem too different.

Friends of mine, people of color, have written about all of this with more eloquence than I have to offer. But change will only come when all of us speak up, including – especially – those of us who enjoy the privilege of being white Americans.

Our country is on fire right now. It is on fire because a white police officer, after stopping a black man for far less than suspicion of bank robbery, knelt on the man’s neck until the man died. He knelt on the man’s neck. Until the man died.

Our country is on fire because our President, the very embodiment of white privilege, is more interested in firing up the white supremacists in his electoral base than he is in promoting tolerance and healing and greater equality.

Our country is on fire because after a shameful racial history that dates back four centuries plus, we remain a nation that is governed by prejudice and fear.

I can’t shed my privilege – it is part and parcel of who and what I am, as impossible to separate as chewed gum wadded in tissue. What I can do is use my privilege to speak up, to say “enough,” to draw attention to the advantages I enjoy in the hope that this will make my brothers and sisters in privilege see what is denied to those who aren’t as lucky as we are.