Saturday, February 6, 2016

Lessons from black history, part 2

“You must know something I don’t know.”

That was the reaction I got when I responded to a white conservative fellow Christian who was exulting that George W. Bush had been declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election that I had voted for Al Gore. Apparently it never occurred to him that Christians don’t uniformly support the modern conservative agenda.

Well, he was ultimately right. as most African-Americans, even Bible-believers, don’t. (And by most, I’m referring to over 90 percent.) There are reasons.

To most African-Americans, “conservatism” is more literal — it represents an unwillingness to share political power with those not of that purview because their history in this country by definition reflects a need for social change.

To wit, who supported slavery? Who opposed civil-rights? (And both were “endorsed” by the Bible, by the way.)

It’s also a reason that blacks who promote the conservative agenda are often considered “sellouts.” In many cases it’s literally true in that a few have actually accepted money available through conservative foundations to do so — after all, that was also done under slavery, with “house Negroes” receiving better treatment than those in the field and squelching any hint of rebellion.

So what does this have to do with “black history?” Let me turn that around: What doesn’t it have to do with it?

Friday, February 5, 2016

Lessons from black history

This marks the annual recognition of Black History Month, when special attention is paid to the achievements, individually and collectively, of African-Americans.

That said, while you do have a burst of references to the “first” person of that heritage to make some milestone — and, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those — studying history isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about “trivia.” We do so also to learn lessons about where we were, how we get there — and, ultimately, how to move forward.

Two years ago I was a guest on an internet radio program talking about the subject, and the host and I talked about several figures: Jackie Robinson, Doug Williams and Miles Davis.

Robinson’s place as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era is secure, but that had to do with more than just his presence. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey did want to integrate the game and chose Robinson do to it not simply because he was a great player, which he was; rather, Rickey had two other things in mind.

One, he wanted to build a cohesive team with someone or something to rally around, with the intention that if someone called Robinson a name other players would stick up for him and, thus, build camaraderie. Two, because black baseball was more exciting in those days, Rickey wanted to reach out to the black public, and its money, by bring black players in.

In the case of Williams, the quarterback for the Washington Redskins in the late 1980s, opportunity was knocking. When the Redskins were about to face the Denver Broncos in the 1988 Super Bowl, gums were flapping about Williams’ race — you know, “can a black quarterback win the big one?”, a question I personally found insulting. Someone asked me for a prediction, and I called a Washington victory because “Doug Williams will have the game of his life.” Result: A 42-10 laugher, with Williams throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter (still a record for not only a quarter but also a half).

Davis, the jazz trumpeter and composer who reinvented music a few times, moving from bebop to “cool” and later fusion, ignored critics and waited for them to catch up to him. (Which they did.) Rather than focus upon whatever might make him a star, he blazed his own path, where others eventually followed. That’s his legacy.

And these are the kind of things we should look for.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

What it might take …

Every year for the past three years I’ve participated in the pit orchestra for the spring musical at a local suburban high school, and I’ve been asked to do it again this year.

What’s important about that is that I’m the only “person of color” involved in the production and one of the very few who even attends these plays.

For the past few years I’ve attended a number of dances, mostly partner-based but also a singles dance where having a partner is often optional. At the partner dances I’m approached for dances at least twice a night, and at the singles dance a number of women have taken a shine to me, some even giving me their phone numbers without my even asking.

Even here, where I’m often the lone African-American, I’m considered part of the furniture. Am I OK with that? Sure, because I’ve been relating across those lines for decades.

Can’t I “bring more people in?” Not really, because I don’t see that as the purpose.

I sometimes wonder if part of the problem with racism in this country has to do with an unwillingness of many African-Americans to step out of their comfort zones and build relationships — real relationships, on a one-to-one level — with people outside that community and go to places where race is basically irrelevant.

I think the mistake it’s made recently in addressing what’s known as “micro-aggressions” is the idea that whites should understand that some of their remarks might be interpreted as racist.

But that’s just it — they don’t, often because they don’t have contact with African-Americans and thus understanding that history. And as such, a certain amount of grace is required.

And what about those situations that are willfully, even intentionally, hurtful? I’ve never allowed myself to be suckered, which is what my enemies want.

So as a result, I feel the freedom to go wherever, whenever without regard to my race. Something to be said for that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Donald Trump, the Republican Party and ‘screw you’ politics

If the national Republican Party isn’t feeling the heat now, it should be.

With tycoon Donald Trump far and away the leader for the party’s nomination for president but seen as a drag on the party overall, more than a few GOP “establishment” figures have expressed horror that he might actually win. They believe that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, most notoriously suggesting that Muslims not be allowed to emigrate here thanks to fears of terrorism, possibly has the potential to scare voters off the GOP, even in Congress. They may be right about that.

Here’s the problem, however: If that happens, the party — or perhaps more accurately, the conservatism that dominates it — has only itself to blame.

How so? Well, consider what I refer as the “screw you” — more accurately, a more vulgar term I as a Christian no longer use — mentality in politics where an opponent is considered not only wrong but fundamentally evil and not worth even having a discussion with.

It’s probably not new in American history, but I first noticed it coming into being with the “religious right” in the 1980s, with its talk of defeating “liberals.” Later came the advent of right-wing talk radio, which has cowed more than a few politicians because of the vehemence its hosts display on the air — and translating that to its extremely loyal audiences. In such situations folks try to dictate rather than negotiate, almost as if defeating a perceived enemy is the highest good, when we “get rid of ‘them.’” GOP candidates for the past few decades have used that attitude to rise to power because it’s what their constituency wants.

Or at least they think it does.

See, if you’re perceived as part of an “establishment” you’re already considered part of the problem even though you may believe and say the “right” things. But the GOP base really isn’t interested in either politics or governance; it simply wants its way and considers compromise, without which you can’t run a country properly, surrender.

And that’s where Trump comes in, making those outrageous statements that nevertheless connect with voters. I won’t say that he truly believes what he’s saying, but he’s saying publicly what they believe privately, which is the secret to his appeal regardless of the facts on the ground. In other words, he doesn’t have to get it correct or even take principled positions because he understands that audience. Remember that he, not even a candidate at the time, was one of the first to question President Obama’s eligibility for the presidency in the first place.

Evangelical leaders are especially feeling threatened, with a number of them intending to meet to determine a candidate to endorse or rally around. The trouble is that they haven’t had much voice in the past decade with many of their empires crumbling due to scandal or irrelevance, and Trump has shown little if any interest in addressing cultural issues such as abortion or gay marriage as it is.

Liberals and Democrats are salivating at the idea of the possible — at this point, even likely — immolation of the GOP because might not have to do anything. “We’re not them,” they may be thinking — which is ironic, because their opponents have always thought the same way.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

When the label doesn't fit

I was recently insulted as a tea-partier, even though I have no sympathies for that movement.

The issue came up because of a Facebook discussion about Mike Huckabee, the GOP presidential aspirant who said that, were he president, there would be "no abortion." Here's the thing: I agree with his anti-abortion stance, which I've maintained for over 40 years.

Of course, fighting abortion became a conservative issue when the “religious right” adopted it in 1978 as moral cover for its real concern — restoring tax exemptions for private religious schools in the South that the Carter Administration removed because he believed that they were founded to circumvent court-ordered desegregation of public schools. Trouble was, it was split off from issues like poverty, pollution, racism and other issues that would also threaten the “sanctity of human life.” (In such a situation I was #alllivesmatter even before it became a hashtag saying.)

So what does that have to do with the tea-party movement? Virtually nothing. The New Yorker magazine exposed the involvement with the Koch brothers, who were bankrolling it — and who mentioned in an interview with Forbes magazine that they were pro-choice. The tea-party movement always was about “overreaching government” anyway, but since it has never claimed any central authority there’s no specific doctrine or ideology that its adherents subscribe to.

That might explain the confusion — and the anger toward me. But it’s misplaced.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

‘Safe spaces’?

I really thought we were making serious progress on racial reconciliation on college campuses. People were talking to each other and building intimate relationships across racial lines, the only way I’ve ever understood positive things to happen.

Learning recently of demands for “safe spaces” where black students didn’t have to deal with racism at all has really deflated me — it seems that they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face.

For openers, where will they find them? And when? What’s their goal? And what will they prove in the process? That they aren’t strong enough to live in the real world, where not everyone will like them.

And then, what will they do for allies? You need them to bridge the gap between people, so that they understand and can convey at least a little bit the indignation that black students may feel.

On top of that, what about the black students who are already comfortable in their own skin and willing to relate outside the parameters of what’s “acceptable” without being referred to as an “Uncle Tom?” Solidarity for its own sake isn’t a virtue, you know, and making unreasonable demands simply doesn’t work.

I will admit that conservative activism among students, many of whom are quite insensitive and some of whom are clearly racist, likely has raised hackles. I saw it at Pitt in the 1990s when a conservative student newspaper regularly insulted Pitt’s Black Action Society for reasons I don’t quite understand except for the purposes of resentment.

But getting “loud” doesn’t help the cause. In the least. Because it demonstrates weakness and thus sabotages the opportunity to gain true respect

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Activism — part of the educational process

“This. Means. War.”

I thought those words back in 1994 when a then-future, now-former girlfriend who was living in Chicago at the time got involved in a cult there and who told me that it was sending a mission team to Pittsburgh. Originally interested, I became suspicious when a male friend of hers who was trying to “recruit” me ahead of time dropped some doctrine on me that I knew to be wrong, and after doing some research I realized that this group was bad news. And since it did most of its work on the campuses of major colleges in major cities — I was taking evening classes at the University of Pittsburgh, which fit the bill in both cases — I decided to take action, breaking the news of their arrival on campus in The Pitt News, for which I served as columnist.

Eventually I became the primary counter-cult student activist, attending meetings of the former Cult Awareness Network and speaking twice to groups of students, one of which landed me on the front page of The Tartan, nearby Carnegie Mellon University’s student paper.

Though to my knowledge there really was no coordinated campaign to defeat this group and I never cut a class, my willingness to go to the mat has since proven to be one of the defining moments in my life. Several years later, author John Eldredge, who writes about masculine development in a Christian context, identified that men need “an adventure to live, a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue,” with in this case two of the three coming into play.

That might be the case with demonstrators on a number of campuses, most notably Yale University and Ithaca and Smith colleges, who are fighting racism, “rape culture” and the high cost of college, among other things. Of course the biggest salvo has recently taken place on the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri, where the president and chancellor both stepped down after members of the football team threatened to strike if they didn’t and the head coach, who probably makes more money than the two administrators combined, supported his players.

But some of their critics, whether ignorant, insensitive or just plain racist, have said that student’s shouldn’t be rocking the boat in that way, that they should simply shut up and return to their studies. However, I applaud them for the willingness to take stands because students have also caused changes — and, I suspect, grew in the process.

Two examples from the civil-rights movement: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which engaged in voter registration drives in the South — when it was extremely dangerous to do so. And the four students from North Carolina A&T State University who staged the first sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. They got an education you simply can’t flop down tuition money to receive.

As did I 20 years ago.