The Ends of Silence

Who can afford to be quiet when the white supremacists come to town?

I had a quick reaction when I first saw the photos of white nationalists gathering by torchlight in Charlottesville on Friday night: Please everyone, can we just ignore them? Any attention, I thought, would benefit the idiotic agenda of these racist young men. Look away, was my instinct; let them revel in their lunacy and absurdist version of reality. If a couple hundred nazis hold a white pride rally and no one else cares doesn’t that reveal how little they matter?

But my quick reaction was wrong. And though the events following the Friday night march might have been less violent had my reaction been widely shared, it still would have been wrong.

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Credit: Susan Melkisethian

To begin with, thinking that the best response would have been a non-response to a perspective which demands one’s persecution or annihilation can only seem reasonable to those who aren’t threatened by that hateful perspective. More to the point: Only a white person – me! – would think it rationale to be quiet in the face of such blatant white supremacy.  I saw those torch-wielding men and thought, What a bunch of cowards! Their insecurities seemed palpable; their willingness to be manipulated obvious to the point of easy ridicule. Any attention seemed like adding kindling to their pitiful, dim flame.

I was thinking about these young men as bullies. The bully wants you to react because he’s itching for a fight. The bully only knows confrontation and any other form of communication is wasted on his narrow vision of reality. Your mother’s advice about bullies, though not always practical, contained some wisdom: ignore a bully and he’ll often go away to find someone else who’ll agree to his rules of engagement.

But the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville are not like bullies at all, which leads to the second reason my reaction to them was wrong. According to news reports, many of the marchers wore those red Make America Great Again hats while carrying their signs and chanting their bigotry. The man who owns that slogan and that red hat, the president, still hasn’t directly confronted the marchers or their agenda, choosing instead to blandly condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Many sides. This is what my gut reaction missed. The white supremacists appear so fanatical in those photos that it’s tempting to laugh and then turn away. As Vann R. Newrick II wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s easier to joke about losers camping out in a park than to consider them capable of the kinds of paradigm-shifting horror that destroyed countless black families.” But this is a fatal mistake because, regardless of their appearance or the outrage of so many, these men understand that their assumptions are not those of an easily marginalized or ignored bully, but of much of the nation, including, it’s not a stretch to assume, the president. So when he, the most powerful man in the world, talks about the events in Charlottesville, he’s not talking about the overwhelming forces of good standing against the small vanguard of hate; he’s conjuring a strange sort of predetermined battle in which everyone is equally to blame. The problem, for the president and much of the nation, isn’t with the white nationalists’ premise but in how they advanced it this weekend.

We heard a lot about the silent majority this past election cycle, people who related profoundly to candidate Trump’s vision of a country returned to a mythical past. It’s that word silent that seems important now. The silence of the powerful is deadly. It’s what allows the president to recast the day’s events as an ideologically-neutral fight which should have been fought with more dignity. It’s what will allow so many of the president’s supporters to role their eyes at the news, claiming that the events have been blown out of proportion while admiring the marchers’ goal of defending the statue of Robert E. Lee. That silence creeps into the chests of even those who are disgusted by the hate on display in Charlottesville but who’d rather avoid the complicated conversation, the awkward moment.

But this silence only cuts one way and many of those who showed up to oppose the white supremacists must understand this innately. For while the silent majority has the luxury to watch its agenda advanced from the sidelines, those who’ve long suffered under that agenda have no such privilege. Ignoring the foul propaganda doesn’t delegitimize it because it’s already legitimate. Newrick again: “[E]ven the most feared white supremacists in the lore of Jim Crow were just regular white men, transformed from lives as politicians, mechanics, farmers, and layabouts by the sheer power of ideology. And often, their movements were considered “fringe” and marginal—until they weren’t.”

The events in Charlottesville today exist not as an anomaly that can safely be ignored but as a veil pulled back revealing the ends of silence. So silence, no matter the cost, cannot be an option.

“African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth…”

The Color of LawToday African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of average white incomes. But African-American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth. Most middle-class families in this country gain their wealth from the equity they have in their homes. So this enormous difference between a 60 percent income ratio and a 5 percent wealth ratio is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the 20th century.

African-American families that were prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs in the 1940s and ’50s and even into the ’60s, by the Federal Housing Administration, gained none of the equity appreciation that whites gained. So … the Daly City development south of San Francisco or Levittown or any of the others in between across the country, those homes in the late 1940s and 1950s sold for about twice national median income. They were affordable to working-class families with an FHA or VA mortgage. African-Americans were equally able to afford those homes as whites but were prohibited from buying them. Today those homes sell for $300,000 [or] $400,000 at the minimum, six, eight times national median income. …

So in 1968 we passed the Fair Housing Act that said, in effect, “OK, African-Americans, you’re now free to buy homes in Daly City or Levittown” … but it’s an empty promise because those homes are no longer affordable to the families that could’ve afforded them when whites were buying into those suburbs and gaining the equity and the wealth that followed from that.

The white families sent their children to college with their home equities; they were able to take care of their parents in old age and not depend on their children. They’re able to bequeath wealth to their children. None of those advantages accrued to African-Americans, who for the most part were prohibited from buying homes in those suburbs.

–  Fresh Air interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law about the very intentional federal government policies that are responsible for the racial segregation that continues today, as well as the ramifications of those policies such as the massive wealth gap mentioned above. The more I learn about racial segregation and the policies behind it the more I’m convinced that segregation is the key to understanding so much about the racial disparities in our country, disparities that seem to grow larger as time goes by.

“Lessons from the Dessert”

I’m deeply committed to the integration of an interior life that is attached to Jesus and an exterior life that represents Jesus’ priorities of justice and reconciliation in the world. These two postures are sometimes pitted against each other, or one is downplayed while the other is lifted up. My friend Pastor Daniel Hill likes to say that we lean toward being unbelieving activists or inactive believers and I think he’s right about that. This sermon (beginning at 4:30) by Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship Church in NYC is one of the most beautiful visions I’ve heard for holding together these two essentials of the Christian life.

Faith & Race

This video is long, rambling, and about as lo-fi as it gets, and I think it’s pretty great. Pastor Michelle Dodson and I recorded this a few months back for an all-day Faith & Race workshop that our church recently facilitated. I regularly have really interesting conversations about these topics with really smart, thoughtful folks like Michelle so it’s nice to be able to share this one here.

The Blind Gaze

On seeing, and not, in America.

It takes fifteen Chicago blocks to read aloud the names of the women and men murdered in our city within the past twelve months. It might be done quicker under some circumstances, but not these: hundreds of us walked slowly down Michigan Avenue on New Years Eve, our pace restrained by the crowd, the tourists along the Magnificent Mile reaching into the street with their cameras, and the occasional pause while police officers cleared an intersection. Also, the crosses. They were heavier than I expected: hefty beams, the fresh sawdust pressed onto the shoulders of my black coat. A single man had cut and assembled each of the more than seven hundred crosses, affixed a plywood heart to the cross beam, and painted onto it the victim’s name and date of death. We carried the crosses and walked down the street and then back again, the weight of the wood but also something else slowing us down. The names were read through a bullhorn chronologically by date of death and, occasionally, from somewhere within the cruciform waves, someone would cry out in recognition. Otherwise it was quiet, the whole event like a distant kin to a graduation: quiet, names in order, the uncontrollable scream at everything the name has meant.

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As we moved I angled toward the curb, walking at the edge of the crowd so I could see the response of the unsuspecting shoppers and tourists. Many of the crosses had photos of the deceased attached, the black and brown faces matching the statistics of who gets killed in Chicago. The sidewalk faces varied in their reaction from puzzled to somber, from annoyed to grief-stricken. None, that I could see, joined our quiet march.

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The unexpected emails started arriving in the months before the presidential election. My correspondents were men who could have been my uncles or cousins, if I had a small collection of kind Christian relatives who believed I’d lost my way. My blunt opposition to the next man who would be the president provoked them to write with varying levels of concern and correction. They worried that my polemics missed greater truths about the other candidate, about their own self-consciously Christian support of Donald Trump.

I know these men. They are gentle and modest. They care for their country, but not in the chest-thumping, flag-waving, you-damn-well-better-stand-for-the-anthem way that is sometimes assumed of certain kinds of Christian men. They are authentically pious and God-fearing.

They are also white, though they might question the relevance of this particular fact.

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In an essay about his visit to the West Bank, Teju Cole asks, “How does one write about this place?”

Every sentence is open to dispute. Every place name is objected to by someone. Every barely stated fact seems familiar already, at once tiresome and necessary. Whatever is written is examined not only for what it includes but what it leaves out.

He’s thinking about the troubling relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The names of the places, people, wars, and sacred claims have become so common and heavy with assumptions of guilt and innocence that conversation becomes nearly impossible.

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Last February, on a rainy day in Israel, I sat in an idling bus with a group of clergy looking across an impressive wall into Palestinian land. The pastors, most of them, were impressed with the wall and sympathetic to its military architect who stood at the front of our bus explaining into the microphone why the separation was necessary. He told us that he hoped one day to lead the work to demolish the wall, once the people on the other side learned to police themselves.

Through the rain-streaked windows, across the border, we could see some houses, small and meager next to the impressive wall. I wondered about the people whose days began in those homes before making the slow walk through tangled border crossings to work on the other side.

Did you know, asked the architect, that some of your politicians have visited our wall to study how to build a similar one on your border?

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Seeing is hard. The stimuli enter my eyes and I register, somewhere, the scene as it unfolds. My eyes are exposed to experiences that exist beyond the limits of my body; I take them in as a passerby, sometimes as a confidant. But do I see?

It took a couple of weeks after this election to notice that I’d stopped posting photos of my sons to Facebook. The decision wasn’t deliberate; I’m proud of my sons and delight in sharing their smiles and adventures. I was aware, almost immediately, that there was nothing rational about my unconscious decision, but once it surfaced it became an unmovable fact, a thing I don’t do. The knowledge that many in my digital timeline voted for the man who has made himself a threat to my black and brown sons made posting their images seem, I don’t know, somehow inappropriate. As though I’d be aiding and abetting those who will not see my beautiful boys for who they are. These friends – and they are, still, I think – believe that what is best for my sons is to empower a man whose words and actions menace those who share what will be sons’ tenuous experience of this nation.

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There is a lot to which I am blind but, when the emails came, I could see what my correspondents saw. I know the concerns and hopes they feel. I can hear the sermons they nod along to each week. I imagine the dinner-table conversation or the commentary over the latest headline. I see them.

That’s not totally right. I know this; there’s so much that I miss and Jesus says this discomfiting thing about beams and motes that chastens any assumptions about how clearly I see. Still, I’m willing to say this: They can’t see, not really, the experiences I try to explain- the ones about my sons, our friends, this segregated country, the good things being led in our city by people whose race renders their stories uninteresting to those with the power to tell them. In America, seeing happens through tinted lenses. What is made visible by dint of proximity and friendship is rendered perilously opaque to those who lack these basics. Seeing accurately requires closeness and familiarity.

The choice, such as it was, to stop posting photos of my sons is probably misdirected. Silly even. But it’s instinctual, a spasm provoked by bad eyes. These eyes are blinded to the flesh and blood village in front of them as they look to the gleaming, reality-defining wall in the distance.

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In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley, upon hearing that the lynched and mutilated body of her 14-year-old son had been recovered from a Mississippi river, decided that Emmet would rest in an open casket during his Chicago funeral. About this decision, Claudia Rankine writes that “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence.” Her decision, steeped in a courage I cannot grasp, was a mother’s demand to be seen. For her son to be seen. Photos were taken and articles written. But, as Rankine writes,

We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and going. Dead blacks are a part of life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police, or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is not quotidian without the enslaved, chained, or dead body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against.

In this land, seeing demands more than an open casket and a mother’s deep resolve. We cannot be made to see. The white gaze blinks, even weeps at these moments – Emmet Till in the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown on Canfield Drive, Tamir Rice at the Cuddle Recreation Center – but somewhere deep in the racialized reptilian subconscious is the anticipation of these scenes. This is the dark traumatic screen upon which whiteness has projected itself for centuries. We know the rituals and act them out; some will grieve and others will explain the violence away. But we do not see. We do not want to see.

It has long been this way. Sixty years before young Emmet’s funeral, Ida B. Wells published A Red Record, an account of American lynchings between 1892 and 1894. The book was “respectfully submitted to the Nineteenth Century civilization in ‘the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.'” It is a brave and gruesome book, the fruit of Well’s brilliance and incomparable will. Chapter after chapter documents the sad and brutal cases in which black bodies were desecrated and hung under the most speculative of pretenses. Then, toward the end, Wells describes a trip to England in support of her anti-lynching crusade. While there, Wells was asked about another American Christian, the Rev. Dwight L. Moody who was an internationally known evangelist and founder of a well known Bible college. Unlike Wells, he was white. Her English supporters were curious whether Rev. Moody had supported Wells’ efforts to stop the rampant lynching of black women and men. She replied, “Mr. Moody had never said a word against lynching in any of his trips to the South, or in the North either, so far as was known.”

In a forward to one of Wells’ previous books Frederick Douglass praised her work.

Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured. If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever you pamphlet shall be read.

But, as Rankine observes, the scream never comes. The white Christians indicted by Douglass cannot see, or rather, what horror they do see slides from consciences that were generations ago hardened to the violence inflicted upon black bodies. There is no whiteness without the juxtaposition of black bodies and, in America, those same bodies have always been interpreted through the lurking threat of state-dependent violence.

So the white gaze sees the unending assault but not the associated horror of any human encounter with violence. The suffering black body becomes black-ness, a disembodiment requiring no empathy or reflection, certainly no confession or repentance. The gaze can survey a ruined landscape, decimated by violence of its own making, and feel no complicity for the damage, no compassion for its victims. Within this devastation, Rankine writes, black citizens are asked, “What kind of savages are we?” But the legitimate question, she writes, the question grounded in truth and history, the question invisible to the white gaze, is different: “What kind of a country do we live in?”

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My sons are black and they are brown. The oldest can tell you what continents and countries his ancestors came from. How they came here and why is unfolding before him. They must learn to see clearly for the critical reason that they cannot expect the same from those whose hazy sight has not hindered their accumulation of tremendous power.

“Every sentence is open to dispute,” writes Cole, but it’s more than that. Vision itself is contested. The gaze renders specific bodies invisible; it replaces flesh and blood with specters of an ancient, terrified imagination.

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Our New Years Eve memorial ended about two hours after we first gathered in the December chill. Family members were invited to keep the crosses bearing the names and photos of their deceased. The rest of us placed ours near the trucks that had brought them; they would be delivered far from the Magnificent Mile, to an empty city lot as a larger version of the memorials that dot certain neighborhoods throughout the city. We left then, our ranks replaced by window shoppers and tourists ready to welcome a new year. Some looked over curiously, quickly. But mostly they walked on, their sight attracted to the shimmer and sparkle ahead.

Now, months later, I try to remember the name of the man whose cross I carried. I imagine it, scrawled across the plywood heart, but in my memory I see only a blank space where his name should be.

“If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

If you not already heard it, this Fresh Air interview with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones about public school segregation is essential listening. A taste:

The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

And no, my daughter is not going to get an education that she would get if I paid $40,000 a year in private-school tuition, but that’s kind of the whole point of public schools.

And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

One more:

When I started what I kind of call the segregation beat about five years ago … I think we had stopped talking about this as a problem. If you look at No Child Left Behind, which comes out of the Bush administration, that was all about giving up on integration in schools and just saying, “We’re going to make these poor black and Latino schools equal to white schools by testing and accountability.”

So no one was discussing integration anymore. I think it’s because … we never really wanted this. … It’s always had to be forced, and as soon as … our elected officials and our courts lost the will to force it, most white Americans were just fine with that. …

One of the things that I really try to do with my work is show how racial segregation and racial inequality was intentionally created with a ton of resources. From the federal government, to the state, to city governments, to private citizens, we put so much effort into creating this segregation and inequality, and we’re willing to put almost no effort in fixing it, and that’s the problem.

“We are not Chi-raq…”

Chicago is arguably the capital of black America. The legacy of African Americans reverberates from the Johnson Publishing Company, with its flagship publication Ebony, to multiple black hair-care companies to the first black US congressman elected in the north. All of this before Oprah Winfrey set roots here.

It’s not by accident, then, that the country’s first black president came from Chicago. It was preordained. Chicago, notably the South Side, where most black folk live, reeks of soul. That soul dances in the air in the form of house music, gritty blues, the plumes of smoke from barbecue joints, lounges that cater to “stepper sets”, a unique partner dance.

I imagine none of these scenes registers as what black Chicago is or has to offer to outsiders. The dominant narrative is that the city is full of wartorn corners, with gun-toting black and brown people. Violence has been the singular elephantine story ever since Obama took office in 2009. It’s a fetish. It’s reductive. It’s an incomplete story. We are not Chi-raq, the inane phrase that compounds “Chicago” and “Iraq” in an attempt to describe shared levels of violence.

Chicago murders may make the headlines, but our problems of violence actually stem from something larger, something many other American cities face: racism, segregation and inequity. Chicago is a microcosm of a larger American story. Uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore illustrate the racial tension that’s in part defined by deep-seated housing segregation.

Natalie Moore in The Guardian.