Tag Archives: race

Monday Musings: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died last week. He was, of course, a baseball legend, the former home run king. He was also a civic leader, a philanthropist, and a Civil Rights activist. And he’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid.

As a baseball player, Aaron was so good as to make superlatives redundant, and so ridiculously consistent that he managed to fly under the radar, at least in a relative sense, while rewriting baseball’s record books. He entered the Major Leagues in the game’s golden age, as part of the first generation of Black superstars. It is almost impossible to understate the revolutionary impact he and the other ballplayers of his cohort had on the game.

For those of us who love baseball, there are two statistical milestones that define supreme career achievement for batters: 500 career home runs, and 3,000 career hits. At the time I graduated from high school, only twelve players in the history of baseball had hit 500 home runs. Of those twelve, eight of them hit their first home run during the 1950s, and of those eight, five were black. At the same historical moment, only fifteen players had more than 3,000 hits. And only two players, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both part of that class of Black superstars, were on both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit lists.

Even after the steroid era, which saw so many players — many of them undeserving — join that exclusive home run club, Hank Aaron still holds the record for most seasons with at least 20 home runs (20 such years). He holds the record for the most seasons with at least 30 home runs (tied, at 15), and is second only to Babe Ruth in the number of seasons with 40 home runs (tied with others at 8). When Aaron completed his career in 1976, he was second on the all-time hit list, and first on the all-time home run list. If all of his home runs had magically disappeared, he still would have had over 3,000 hits. To this day, he remains the Major League’s career leader in runs batted in and total bases.

He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and, in fairness, he also wasn’t as good in the outfield or as fast on the base paths. He won “only” one Most Valuable Player award (in 1957) and only one World Series championship. (He played in two World Series and batted a combined .364 in fourteen games.) He never won the Triple Crown, as his contemporaries Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle did. But he led the league in batting average twice, in home runs four times, in runs batted four times, in runs scored three times, in hits twice, in doubles four times, in total bases eight times, and in slugging average four times. He won three gold gloves for outstanding fielding. He stole 30 bases in a season once, and at least 20 six times. He was voted into the All-Star game twenty-one consecutive years — another record. He wasn’t particularly big or brawny, but he had as quick a bat as anyone in the game. Said one of his teammates, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, deep, deep, deep in the heart of the segregated South. He loved baseball as a child, but for years wondered if he would ever have the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was thirteen when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s race barrier. Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. He put up with racial taunts from fans, abuse from opposing players, and indifference, even hostility, from too many of his own teammates. Much of this continued when he reached the majors.

Still, in 1960, as a popular star on the Braves, he campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and was said to have played a role in JFK’s crucial victory in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, Aaron’s pursuit of the Major League home run record in the early 1970s, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta, forced him into the national spotlight as never before, to his detriment. He and his family received death threats and cruel, horrible letters filled with racist invective. He himself said years later that his chase of the record should have been a time of joy and excitement, but was instead the darkest period of his life.

And yet, his performance on the field never suffered. In the three seasons leading up to his record-setting home run, when he was in his late thirties and should have been fading as a ballplayer, he hit 47, 34, and 40 home runs. He entered the 1974 season with 713 career homers, one behind Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. He hit the tying home run on Opening Day. He hit the record-breaking shot in his first home game of the season three nights later.

Sports Illustrated, Hank Aaron, 715I was watching that night, along with pretty much every other eleven year-old, baseball-loving boy in America. I remember everything about it — the call from announcer Vin Scully, the twist and high stare of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing as he watched the ball sail out over left field, Aaron’s joyful trot around the bases, the two white guys in civilian clothes who appeared out of nowhere as he rounded second base and patted his back and shoulder, the way his jubilant teammates mobbed him at home plate and put him on their shoulders. I still have the issue of Sports Illustrated from the next week, with Aaron on the cover holding up the baseball next to a golden, bolded “715.” And I also still have the special edition baseball card Topps issued that same year proclaiming Aaron baseball’s home run king.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in the Major Leagues. It stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the President, General Manager, and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Robinson into Major League baseball. There is a moment in the movie, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Rickey tells Robinson of seeing white kids in the streets of Brooklyn, playing baseball and copying Robinson’s batting stance, pretending to be him.

That was my friends and me when I was growing up and playing baseball on my little dead end street outside of New York City. Except by then, thanks to the black superstars of the 1950s and 60s — Mays and Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Billy Williams and Willie McCovey and so many others — we took for granted that all of us, white and privileged though we were, wanted to emulate the Black players we idolized. We copied their batting stances and pitching wind-ups. We tried batting cross-handed, the way Aaron did when he was a young minor leaguer. We made our baseball caps fly off when we ran, like Willie Mays, and tried to make basket catches the way he did.

For many of us, baseball and other sports opened our eyes to the importance of racial equality and opportunity. That may sound ludicrous, like I’m trivializing race by couching it in the context of sports. But it’s the truth. I grew up in a politicized household. I was only five when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my parents talked about him all the time, in glowing terms. In 1972, when I was all of nine years old, I knew about and followed Shirley Chisholm’s ground-breaking run for the Presidency.

Mine was also a baseball household. We watched other sports, but baseball was king. I heard about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella from my Dad, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned to love Willie Mays, because he was my brother Bill’s favorite player in the world. I understood that Black players had been excluded from baseball for too long and that this was a terrible injustice. How could the world be considered a fair place if Black players couldn’t even get in the game? And because I used to pore over statistics and records, I knew as well that whatever the game was like before Black players were allowed in the Major leagues, it could not have been complete. How could baseball, even in the age of Ruth and Gehrig, be the game that I knew and loved if players like Aaron and Mays were excluded?

Hank Aaron’s baseball legacy is clear. His social and historical legacy should be equally apparent. He was a man of grace, intellect, eloquence, and class who carried himself with dignity through an ordeal that should have been a celebration. By his example, his words and actions, his generosity and courage, he made this a better country. He will be missed.

Monday Musings: This is EXACTLY Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

Comforting words that have been trotted out repeatedly in the days since the Capitol Hill insurrection that left six dead and scores injured, and that shook to the core our faith in the strength of our republic.

We’ve heard politicians from both sides of the aisle say this, none with more conviction than Joe Biden. “This is not who we are. We’re Americans. We’re better than this.”

I’m paraphrasing — that’s not an exact quote. But it’s close enough.

The problem is, this is exactly who we are. It’s who we have been for two and a half centuries. We are a nation whose racism and blithe acceptance of White Supremacist doctrine is embedded in the original wording of our Constitution. According to that revered document, the version ratified in 1788, slavery was an accepted economic and political reality, black slaves counted as merely three-fifths of a human being, and unless you were a white man, you didn’t get to participate in our political process.

Subsequent amendments have remedied the worst offenses of the original, but it took a prolonged and bloody Civil War to make most of them possible, and another fifty years of agitation to win the vote for women.

Our politics have been riven by race, by anti-democratic tendencies, by a win-at-all-costs mentality for nearly the entire history of our nation. Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1832 Worcester v. Georgia ruling that ordered the state of Georgia to halt the removal of the Cherokee from the state. “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision,” Jackson said. “Now let him enforce it.”

In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the Senate Chamber and assaulted Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner, beating him bloody and senseless with a gold-tipped wooden cane. Sumner had “given offense” with a fiery speech condemning slavery.

Anti-communist crusades in the 20th century — in the 1920s, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin — saw frightening curtailments of civil liberties and shocking violence aimed at suspected socialists and communists. Palmerism and McCarthyism were built on lies and distortions that fed a frenzy of authoritarian rhetoric and policy, all in the name of protecting our democratic republic.

Police brutality directed at Blacks and the political Left is also nothing new. Images of police attacks on Blacks during the urban race riots of the 1910s and ‘20s, can be laid alongside footage of similar attacks on Civil Rights protesters in the 1950s and ‘60s. And these can be matched with video captures of the violence and cruelty we all witnessed during the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter activists were beaten and shot in the streets of America’s cities.

Of course this is who we are. It is who we have been from the start.

I don’t say this to feed complacency or to justify any recent events. I don’t say it because I hate America. I don’t say it even to reassure — “we’ve been through this before; we’ll get through it this time.”

I say it because the sooner we accept that what we’re witnessing now is nothing new, the sooner we can change “This is not who we are,” to “This is not who we ought to be.”

I have been horrified by the excesses of Trumpism (which will take its place alongside “Palmerism” and “McCarthyism” in the annals of history). I fear what might happen at Wednesday’s inauguration. And yet, I will admit that I do take some comfort in knowing that we have weathered crises of this kind before. On Friday, I heard an NPR interview with Stephanie Cutter, the producer of the 2021 inauguration. She was asked about the threats aimed at Wednesday’s festivities, and she made clear that while she is taking them seriously, she is not panicking. It seems there were equally credible threats aimed at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration — no surprise there. The threats were so serious, that Obama had prepared instructions for the huge crowd gathered on the Mall, telling them what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Fortunately, he didn’t need them. But threats of this sort are nothing new.

So, yes, this is who we are. America is, and has always been, as flawed and conflicted as the people who populate her. Nor are we alone in this regard. History tells us that nations on every continent have been subject, at one time or another, to violent assaults on liberty, to authoritarianism, to political conflicts that result in bloodshed and threaten to tear the very fabric of civil society. The United States is hardly unique in this regard.

And perhaps that is the point. Americans have long touted our “exceptionalism.” Our system of government, which truly is unique in many regards, was supposed to protect us from the sort of raw, ugly violence we saw on January 6th. We were supposed to be immune.

But THAT is not who we are. This nation — of the people, by the people, for the people — is by definition doomed to be flawed. The American experiment is a human endeavor, and so is subject to all the foibles and problems of anything human. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we stop denying who and what we are, the sooner we can get to the crucial task of becoming who and what we aspire to be.

Monday Musings: 2020 is the New 1968

Putting on my historian’s cap…

There are certain years in modern history that stand out as significant all on their own. They are so fraught, so filled with resonance and import, that they become both microcosms and embodiments of the periods in which they occur. They typify entire eras.

Arguably, the most prominent example of this is 1968, the capstone of a tumultuous decade. It began with the Tet Offensive at the end of January — a coordinated and devastating attack on key military and civilian positions carried out by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The offensive gave the lie to all the false assurances of “progress” the U.S. military had been offering about the American war effort in Vietnam. In March, the sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, was nearly defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Weeks later, on the 31st of March, Johnson withdrew from the race, throwing the election into turmoil. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in many cities. Only two months after that, Bobby Kennedy, by then the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, was shot and killed as well. Summer saw the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with riots in the streets and near brawls within the convention center. In November, former Vice President Richard Nixon narrowly defeated the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, for the Presidency.

2020 will be remembered and written about the way 1968 is. The pandemic, which introduced the world to “masking” and “social distancing,” and exposed anew the anti-science, anti-“elite” biases of a significant portion of the American public, turned the world upside down. The casualty count — total cases, hospital capacity, deaths from the disease — has become a grim daily reminder of our nation’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the problem, and our national leaders’ incompetence and lack of compassion.

The resulting economic collapse sent shockwaves across the entire globe. Here in the U.S., unemployment spiked, businesses closed, the stock market tanked, rallied, fell again, and now is rallying again, even as the pandemic’s third wave ravages rural communities in nearly every state.

The murders of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd sparked protests throughout the country, and beyond our borders. These protests, in turn, further exposed the problem of police brutality in countless cities. Confrontations between White vigilantes and police on the one hand, and protesters, Black and White, on the other, turned ugly, violent, and deadly.

At the same time, the nation went through a political campaign like no other, with the pandemic curtailing in-person campaigning and complicating the voting process. We saw the historic nomination and subsequent election of Kamala Harris as our next Vice President. And we watched Donald Trump engage in an unprecedented assault on our democratic norms, that were ultimately unsuccessful, but damaging nevertheless.

Then there were the oddities — shortages of rice and beans, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, bread flour and other staples; restaurants and bars closed for a time (and now closing again); sporting events and entire major league seasons altered, reconfigured, “bubbled;” movies and theater and concerts forsaken.

And, of course, we saw more than our share of tragic and untimely deaths, losing Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, Kobe Bryant and his beautiful daughter, Chadwick Boseman and Naya Rivera and countless others.

Every time we thought 2020 couldn’t get crazier or darker, it did. Stress and anxiety afflicted nearly all of us in one form or another. Isolation became its own epidemic.

It goes without saying that future historians will write books about this year. Our grandchildren will ask us questions about the pandemic.

Here are a few things I’ll remember.

Early in April, our older daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, and who was living alone in the bleakest days of New York’s early struggle with COVID, texted me about what it was like living in the city at that point. All she heard, she said, were sirens. “It’s eerie because the streets are otherwise dead. Sirens are the only sound.” Except in the mornings, she added, when all the churches rang their bells. Haunting.

Our younger daughter contracted COVID in September, and I will never forget my fear, my feeling of helplessness, my awareness of the miles between us and the impracticality, even danger, of going to see her and care for her.

The news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died hit me like a gut punch, and prompted a very real concern that Trump’s replacement, whoever it might turn out to be, would help him steal the election.

I went to bed on election night, thinking that Trump had probably won. The counting of absentee ballots in key states hadn’t yet started, and though I had read enough about the “red mirage” and the “blue shift” to know what to expect, the numbers looked daunting. Waking up Wednesday morning to renewed hope was one of the highlights of the year.

For me, personally, this was a year of physical problems that reminded me of my advancing age. For the first half of 2020 I dealt with debilitating pain in my shoulder that made even the simplest tasks agonizing. The pain is much reduced now, but it’s not yet gone entirely. It was also a year of emotional struggles, though I’m hardly alone in that regard. Anxiety, panic attacks, stress, professional worries: I had enough of these for five years, much less one.

But amid all the sadness and worry, there have also been bright spots. Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together and have truly never been closer. I have made nature walks a feature of my daily routine, allowing myself to birdwatch each morning, and use my camera more often than ever. I have played a lot of guitar (when my shoulder allowed it) and have learned a bunch of new songs. Even with Major League Baseball’s regular season disrupted, and despite the odd spectacle of stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts, the postseason was terrific and rekindled my passion for the game.

Finally, I know this will sound hackneyed, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s the truth: I feel that I will enter 2021 with a new appreciation for things that I took for granted most of my life. Time with friends and family, the simple pleasure of sitting in a restaurant with my wife and daughters, the opportunity to think once more about travel. We have a long distance to go, as a nation, as a global community. But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.

That, in any case, is my hope.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: A Nation In Need of Common Ground

A video surfaced on Twitter and social networks over the weekend. It came out of D.C. and the demonstrations there, and in its first iteration, slowed down for effect, it appeared to show a left-wing demonstrator sucker-punching a Trump supporter, who goes down in a heap on the street, unconscious, his phone falling to his side.

A second version of the video emerged soon after, this one longer and in real time. It begins with the Trump supporter attacking a counter-protester who holds a bullhorn and who is obviously saying stuff the Trump supporter doesn’t like. The Trump supporter punches the man, rips the bullhorn from his hand and then knocks the man down and tries to stomp on his head. Other counter-protesters come to the aid of their comrade, a lot of pushing and shoving and punching ensues, and THEN the demonstrator lands his sucker punch.

Finally, a third version of the video, also in real time, longer still than the second, shows that after the Trump supporter is knocked out, another counter-protester, darts in, grabs his dropped phone, and hurries away, bearing a mischievous grin, as if enjoying the violence and also the theft of the phone.

So who is in the right? Who is in the wrong?

The answer, of course, is that none of them is in the right, and that our country is verging on a very dangerous partisan dynamic.

I have struggled with today’s post, going back and forth between my own outrage and resentment, and my deeper fear that our divisions are insurmountable and are bound to spark more and more violence.

I am sick and tired of the extreme political right in this country denying reality in pursuit of their ideological agenda. They don’t want to wear masks or make any meaningful sacrifice that might impact their daily lives. So their answer is to call COVID a hoax and endanger the rest of us. They don’t want even to contemplate long-term changes in their social or economic activity. So they deny that climate change is real and doom our planet to a bleak, likely devastating future. They don’t want to admit that their incompetent, race-baiting President lost. So they call into question the integrity of an election that everyone, from election officials of both parties to international observers brought in by the Trump Administration to Bill Barr’s own selected investigators agree was fair and honest. And in doing so, they imperil our republic.

But I am also pissed off at the activist left. This weekend’s “Million MAGA March” on Washington was a total bust. The event attracted all of 17,000 people. It was a blip, an event worthy of ridicule, despite the laughable attempts of White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany to claim that a million people really did attend. At least it should have been all these things. Lots of people warned counter-protesters away from the city. “Let them have their little protest,” people said. “It will be small, a non-event, and it will make them look that much more foolish.”

But no. Counter-protesters had to show up anyway, leading to brawls like the one caught on camera, and turning the event into something else entirely. Now the story, at least in some circles, is about violence in the streets, about the poor Proud Boys, who came for a simple protest and were attacked by BLM and ANTIFA. That’s a ludicrous narrative, of course. But they have video, which can be manipulated and made to fit their story, as the first version of the fight was.

So, how do we return tolerance, civility, and compromise to our politics and society? Seriously, I’m asking. Because I’m not sure I know.

I want to believe that some of the tension we see boiling over will ease as the passions of the campaign recede. I am fairly confident that certain elements of our nation’s political life will improve, approaching something we will all recognize as normal, once the current occupant of the White House is gone and Joe Biden assumes the duties of the office. Really, though, I’m not entirely convinced.

I hear many on the right say that Democrats and progressives spent four years challenging the legitimacy of the current Administration, and so we should expect them to do the same. Yes, they ignore Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, and Trump’s illegal solicitation of aid from Ukraine, AND the simple fact that Joe Biden won the election. But they’re not likely to be swayed by my arguments. I understand that.

I also know that these divisions pre-date this Administration. I remember during the Clinton Administration hearing Rush Limbaugh rail against the President, questioning his legitimacy, running a nightly feature called “America Held Hostage.” Democrats still carry resentments from the 2000 election, which was a historically close election. To this day, many on the left believe the White House was stolen from Al Gore. And I still remember the pain of the 2004 election, which I was convinced would rectify that previous injustice.

Most of all, I remember the eight years of Barack Obama’s Presidency, during which he was badgered, insulted, and obstructed non-stop by Republicans in Congress. To my mind, whatever indignities Trump has endured are nothing compared to what Obama faced, in part because Obama did nothing to deserve them. Like a Black motorist being harassed by police, Obama’s only “crime” was governing while Black.

The resentments exist on both sides, and I know that my recitation of grievances could be countered by those on the other side of the political spectrum. There are slights and bruised feelings aplenty throughout the body politic.

The question is, how do we move past them? Or do we not? Are we doomed to spiral on and on into deepening hostilities and civil unrest? Are we witnessing the final years of the American republic as we know it? I don’t want to believe that, but when we can’t even agree on basic facts, like vote totals and election winners, or whether a deadly disease is actually real, what kind of future do we have?

I didn’t mean for this post to be quite so bleak. I take hope from nations that have faced divisions far more serious and lethal than ours. Northern Ireland has enjoyed two decades of relative peace and stability, after a violent conflict that seemed too bitter ever to be resolved. The divisions in the U.S. are not yet that bad. Surely, we can find a way forward as well.

First, though, both sides must commit to finding common ground. And it seems to me that we should begin with the pandemic. COVID is now attacking rural America with the same merciless ferocity it unleashed on New York and other urban areas earlier this year. The red state/blue state divide some sought to exploit for political gain back in the spring and summer doesn’t exist anymore. This disease is attacking everywhere, which means we need a national solution.

Wouldn’t the energy and ingenuity we currently pour into partisan bickering be better spent combating COVID and saving lives in all fifty states? Can’t we agree that dying from a virus is bad, that keeping people alive and healthy is good?

Seems pretty basic to me.

 

Monday Musings: Breathe

Breathe.

In and out. In and out.

It’s finally over.

I am relieved, elated, a bit nervous about the shenanigans yet to come from the White House. Not because I believe they will succeed, but because I believe that even in failing, they could do lasting damage to our republic.

Many of my friends on the Left, while sharing my relief, remain unnerved by the relative closeness of the vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed, too. I hoped for a landslide, for a decisive repudiation of this Administration. I am horrified by the fact that more than 70 million people, 47% per cent of this year’s electorate, cast votes for a man who coddled White supremacists, flouted the norms of our democratic republic, and utterly failed to lead the nation safely through a devastating and deadly pandemic. How, I keep asking myself, can so many people not see him for what he is? How is it possible that, relative to 2016, the President gained support among Latino voters, among Black voters?

I have no certain answers to any of these questions, but I can offer a few thoughts, starting with a couple of obvious ones: First, Trump remains to many Americans a symbol of defiance against institutions that they despise — the mainstream media; Congress; faceless, poorly defined “bureaucracy.” These people see his outrageous pronouncements not as offensive, they way I do, but as a righteous response to what they call “political correctness” — a changing standard of speech and action and thought that challenges assumptions they have embraced, and privilege they have enjoyed, all their lives. They care less about the substance of what he says than they do about his willingness to say it. They see him as courageous and authentic. Even after four years as President, he still seems to them the outsider, the guy who isn’t a politician and who therefore can be trusted to do the right thing.

Second, people really do vote based on their wallets, and rightly or wrongly they believe that he would have been better for the economy than Joe Biden will be. I think this was especially a factor in the shift in the vote among people of color. Trump’s claim that he has done more for Black voters than any President since Lincoln is, of course, laughable. But before the pandemic hit, the economy was doing well. He inherited a strong economy from Obama, and for the first three and a half years of his Presidency didn’t screw it up. And related to this, I believe a lot of people think he has handled the pandemic poorly, but don’t actually blame him for the devastation. To my mind, the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, and also the catastrophic collateral damage caused by COVID, are all directly attributable to Trump’s inaction, denials, and incompetence. But to many, these are things that happened, rather than something he did.

People talk about the level of support Biden enjoyed among women — and it needs to be said that without the gender-gap, we would have a very different outcome. But the gender-gap cuts both ways. Lots of men, including many men of color, like Trump because they see in him a brand of (toxic) masculinity that remains popular with a segment of the population. The whole America-first, go-it-alone, screw-the-rest-of-the-world vibe is very attractive to some people, just as Ronald Reagan’s John-Wayne-esque masculinity was forty years ago. In my view, his actions have made our world less safe, our country less influential, our planet’s future less certain. But some folks, including a lot of men, like that he “stands up for America.” They credit him for taking on China in a trade war, and for removing the U.S. from the climate treaty, the World Health Organization, the Iran deal. Where I see recklessness, they see strength.

Certainly there are people out there who voted for Trump because he spouts racism and homophobia and sexism, because he calls the pandemic a hoax, because he incites people to violence. But I know a lot of Trump voters. I’m even related to a few. None who I know support him because of these things. None of them are bad people. They voted for him despite all of this.

And — plot twist — that disturbs me even more than if they supported his extremism.

If they shared his views, then at least I might explain to myself how they could vote for the man. But I can’t help feeling that by caring about these other things and ignoring the ugliness of Trumpism, they make themselves complicit. They may not hate, but they voted for hatred. They may be patriots, but they voted for a man who is still trying to undermine the pillars of our republic. They may lament the damage done by COVID, but they rewarded with their vote a President who made the pandemic infinitely worse than it needed to be.

Hence my bewilderment and dismay at the level of support he received. It will take some time before I can reconcile myself to how close we came to having four more years of this President.

But that is not how I wish to end this post. Because the fact is, Trumpism has been rejected. And while it felt close, in large part because Republicans in Pennsylvania and other states wanted it to feel close and arranged the counting procedures accordingly, the fact is that this was a broad and impressive victory.

Joe Biden’s popular vote margin is likely to exceed five million votes. He has already received more votes than any candidate in U.S. history, and will easily clear 75 million before the counting is done. His margin will also likely be in excess of four per cent, making it the second largest margin in this century (after Obama ‘08). He is the first candidate to defeat a sitting President since Bill Clinton in 1992. His electoral vote total, while not huge, should wind up north of 290, and (depending largely on the vote in Arizona) could reach 306, which is exactly the number won by Trump four years ago — a unique historical oddity were it to occur.

And, of course, thanks to his courageous and wise choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has given us our first woman Vice President and our first person of color in that position. We are, we can hope, that much closer to having a woman as President. I still remember vividly the campaign of Shirley Chisholm for President in 1972. She was dismissed as a sideshow, a curiosity. A Black New York Congresswoman running for President? Absurd! And I remember as well the excitement of Walter Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his VP candidate — the first woman to appear on a major party ticket. Today, finally, the promise of those two pioneers has been realized. More cause for celebration.

Finally, I should point out that Donald Trump has made history as well. As the folks at CBS News pointed out this past weekend, just after the race was called, he is the first President in United States history to lose the popular vote twice.

Have a good week, all. Breathe.

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.