Marginalization

I am a Mormon. You cannot tell that just by looking at me, but it is very much a part of who I am. I could even argue that it is everything that I am. But you cannot really see it.img_5762

There are plenty of Mormons who like to think their Mormonism is visible, that we glow, but this is simply self-affirmation. You can’t see it. It isn’t like Orthodox Judaism or some forms of Islam with proscribed hair and clothing. We don’t even have any actual symbols to announce our faith. No crosses, no Star of David, no half moon and star. Some of us have created symbols, like Angel Moroni lapel pins, but these came “from the streets” not from God. But we know our own. We know who we are because we are obsessed with ourselves.

This is arguably why many people do not like us. We do not sit quietly in a corner, we let you know who we are. We knock on your door and ask you to join us. Odds are, if you want to be left alone, we still won’t leave you alone. This is one reason why, even if I am personally leaving people alone, they still might throw beer bottles at me, swerve their motorcycle to run me off the road, mock my faith loudly during board meetings, accusingly tell me what I believe in job interviews, misrepresent me in classrooms, sing songs mocking me in bars, spit chewed food at me, or the ever hard to really pin down- deeply ignore me. I have experienced all of these things personally.

Sometimes it happens without the other person knowing my faith. They say something negative with no intent to upset me because they don’t know. But most people I know, know what I am, and when the digs come they are intentional. It will not happen, but theoretically, I could always choose to simply not be Mormon. People leave the faith all the time. It isn’t like my last name ties me to an ethnicity like say, Lifshitz or Austerlitz, though I should say that names are how I know Ammon Bundy and Manti Teo were born Mormon. I could hide if I really wanted too, but odds are if I ever became somebody I would get outed. We out our own all the time.

For instance Derek and Julianne Hough, Aaron Eckhart, Ryan Gosling, all born Mormon. Roseanne Barr’s family joined when she was a kid and thanks to my favorite Pop-up Video bubble, the singer Jewel was Mormon till the age of 8. This was my favorite insider Mormon joke because we all know you cannot officially be Mormon until you turn 8, but the point is we are self-obsessed enough that even if you leave us, we will find and claim you. Just the other week I got a text while sitting in church informing me that the real life Rudy, the guy the movie portrayed, had just been baptized a Mormon.

There are some good explanations for this obsession; both historically and due to what it is like to live as a Mormon day-to-day. For example the governor of Missouri signed an extermination order in 1838 authorizing the use of deadly force to remove all Mormons from the state. During much of those years Mormons lived as refugees fleeing from place to place relying on each other for survival. Identifying and sticking with our own was critical. Then we went and founded a city. Then we went and founded a whole bunch more. Salt Lake, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, all Mormon. But manifest destiny couldn’t be stopped and in 1857 the United States declared war on the Mormons in Utah and occupied Salt Lake. As a kid my family regularly drove past the army base originally established by federal forces to keep us Mormons in line.

But that was forever ago, everyone who lived in those days is long gone. Yet this era is such a part of the Mormon cultural legacy that to this day every congregation across the United States send their youth on small summer “treks” where they dress in 19th century clothing and pull rickety human powered wagons called “hand carts” for a week in the woods to ingrain in these kid’s minds what their predecessors endured. If you visit Utah in July you will learn that July 24th, “Pioneer Day” commemorating the arrival of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley is celebrated bigger and louder than the 4th. We refuse to forget.

But it isn’t just history, being Mormon today does draw some attention. While you cannot see my Mormonism, the fact that I have never tasted coffee, or alcohol, or that I was willfully a virgin at my wedding, have put me in some serious spotlights over the years, especially in high school and college. I weathered that storm, but even in the professional world I have had bosses question whether or not I could be an adequate host to important accounts if I was unwilling to drink at the bar with them or share a good glass of wine. I was of course willing to host clients at a bar, but I have learned through repeated experience, I repeat-much experience, that most people are uncomfortable drinking with a person who isn’t doing the same. Yet this one little thing which is such a miniscule part of my faith and an even smaller aspect of who I am as a person, has become my defining characteristic to a huge portion of my associates; clients, rugby teammates, neighbors, colleagues. It becomes rather annoying having that same conversation time and time again, “No not even a little bit. Nope never have. No it isn’t really that hard. Yes hats off to me and yes I still like karaoke.” My religious views on sexual expression influence what I watch in movies, television and online. I love movies and television, and the internet, but every Oscar season there is a large swath of nominated productions that I have not, nor will ever see. This makes me different than other cinephiles and makes me almost unable to meaningfully communicate in those circles.

Faithful Mormons are largely expected to marry other Mormons.

This can make things a little tricky if you don’t live around a critical mass of other Mormons. This is one of many reasons why so many Mormons want to live in Utah, or send their kids to BYU. They want some options, they want to fit in, and they want to be part of their people. Some of us feel this desire to be among our own very strongly, some of us are annoyed by the idea, but we all understand it. I am an American to the core, but having grown up in Utah, I have felt very much the expatriate living in other states. Looking back, at both my youth and my home state, I am a bit amused at how much I, and we, felt like ex pats even when we were living in Utah.

This is why the local Deseret News regularly prints lists of every identifiable Mormon playing in the NFL, the NBA, NCAA, Olympics, or on TV, or in congress. We take a special pride whenever one of our own does anything. I never watched the old MTV show Real World, till a Mormon named Julie went on the show and embarrassed me. I watched every episode of that season. There is a website, www.famousmormons.org that attempts to list every Mormon doing anything, the church puts out an official portfolio of monthly magazines (Ensign, Liahona, New Era, the Friend) yet you can find all sorts of extra Mormon themed magazines not published by the church, but more just published for Mormons by Mormons (LDS Living Magazine). We have created our own books, book stores, television stations, network of blogs (the bloggernacle), music, schools (SVU), all above and beyond what our hyper organized church produces and we cling to such even when we are already living amongst our own. We are self-obsessed.

But I get it. Sometimes I get tired being different and just want to relax with a group of my “brothers and sisters”. Sometimes I want to watch something like Napoleon Dynamite with hard to explain inside jokes. Sometimes I would like to see a doctor who understands why I might be a couch potato yet have this health nut styled prohibition on tobacco and alcohol, yet won’t drink green tea. I would love a dance company for my daughter to join that understands why she won’t train on Sunday. But I also want to live in New York.

So I get it.

Because I get it, I refuse to listen to any white Mormon who makes the complaint that black people think too much about race. I reject any critique coming from people like me regarding black colleges, black television, a congressional black caucus, or a black history month. It is hard being an “other” in America. I know this because I am one. And as one who has experienced how “hard” it is to be Mormon in current society, yet only glimpsed what it might be like to be black, I testify that America is harder on black people than it is on Mormons.

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How Do White People Historically React to Black Accomplishment: Whitelash

There is a strange thing you notice if you spend some extra time looking at the lists of achievers or “firsts” in African- American history. They are spread out all over the place, both geographically and on the time line. Stranger yet is that there is quite often a huge gap between any given “first”, and the subsequent seconds or thirds. Why would you suppose that is?Image result for black woman bayonet

For example the third black man to play professional baseball was Jackie Robinson. You read that right, he was third. The First was back in 1884 when Moses Fleetwood Walker took the field for the Toledo Blue Stockings. The second was Moses’s little brother Weldy.  Jackie didn’t get to play till 1947, because in 1887 the league banned black players from the majors. I could reword that without changing any of the facts, by saying white people banned black players. The Walker brothers proved they could compete, but the white people got together and simply decided they weren’t allowed to.Related image

The first black person to get into an American college was John Chavis who enrolled at Washington & Lee in 1794. This was not only long before the civil rights movement, but 69 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Oddly enough, John Chavis starting college was also 29 years before the first black person to actually graduate college. That was Alexander Twighlight who graduated from Middlebury in 1823.

If there was a 29 year gap between a black person getting into college and another black person actually graduating, as well as a 60 year gap between the first group of black baseball players to make the majors and Jackie, my white American meritocracy minded brain might guess that this was because the first black people were given a shot before they were really ready. Maybe this group of people, for whatever reason (being held back by slavery or poverty or whatever) just weren’t ready to compete in American free markets. Maybe it just took them more time.

I remember learning something like that in history class related to reconstruction. I might have even heard something like that in church when I was little.

But then you see things like the picture of the Little Rock 9 being the first kids to integrate a school in Arkansas.Image result for little rock 9

Or maybe if you look at how the ‘Ol Miss student body reacted when James Meredith was allowed to enroll.Image result for integrating ole miss

Then maybe you start looking into the reactions of white people surrounding all sorts of African American 1sts whether it be in sports, college, politics, business, pretty much everything, and you start to realize something. The reasons why black people were not accomplishing things was because white people were very intentionally stopping them. Intentionally and very regularly violently. What was it like for Chavis in school or the Walkers playing ball?

What is most amazing, is that despite this, and I should say despite “us” they persist. There have always been black achievers and strivers and thinkers and all the while they have had to achieve and strive and think despite a nation of countrymen standing in opposition.

Everything Isn’t About Race: racist math

I have heard many times that “everything isn’t about race”, and that perhaps people, or groups, who try too hard to find racism where it does not exist, are today’s primary cause of racism, or at least the primary cause of perpetual racial issues.church

I get it. I understand where they are coming from and I hear what they are saying, but for the most part… naw. That isn’t our problem today. Not any more than any other annoying and possibly wrong headed thing any number of any population is predisposed to doing. Like double parking, or talking loudly on a cell phone in close quarters. It might make you nuts but it isn’t a real problem. But I know what those people are saying because that is what I used to think.

Then I moved to Atlanta.

In Atlanta everyone and everything was black.12thecity

The people were all black. The billboards, Santa Claus, the tv shows, the churches, commercials, the bus driver, the street vendor, even the grocery isle. I had never even seen or heard of chitterlings or collard greens and the grocery store had two isles of that stuff. Ox tail soup? This was all new to me. I couldn’t get a good hair cut. I didn’t have a car and being limited to public transportation I visited every salon and barbershop within a two hour radius of where I lived and never found anyone who knew what thinning sheers were for. I stopped arguing with barbers about how I didn’t need to be lined up or how my part doesn’t need to actually be shaved into my head and started getting haircuts from a friend in my kitchen. This was all amusing and eye opening for about three months. After that it became exhausting.

More wearying than the inconvenience of living in a world that wasn’t built with me in mind, was that same conversation I had over and over and over again. The one about me being white. Till this time I had never thought my color was all that relevant, it was never a big part of how I saw myself. I had never really discussed it with anyone and after three months of having my whiteness pointed out to me by every single person I met, I was tired. I was sick of it. Even the police questioned my race. I was stopped regularly by white officers wondering if I was lost. On more than one occasion after telling the officers I actually lived “right over there,” I was called stupid and told I was on my own when they (the black people) decided to kill me.  I lived there two years.

I had never felt so white in my whole life. Every hour of every day it was all anyone could see or wanted to talk about. It didn’t matter what I wanted to talk about, or how I saw myself, everyone else decided for me.

But that was just Atlanta. I guess maybe it could have been parts of the Bronx, or Chicago, maybe Oakland, but I’ve been to those places and none are as broadly and deeply black as Atlanta was then. The place is unique that way.

It is unique and I have never relived that experience because America is largely a white space. There is talk of the browning of the United States and predictions of a majority minority nation in the years to come, but those predictions forget that to outnumber the white, every other group must be lumped together to squeak out a majority. America may have adjusted some, but it was originally, and is for the most part still, built for people who look like me.

So is everything about race?img_5719

Well, no, unless you are black, then kind-of, yes. It isn’t like every issue or interaction is race-ist, or that race is all that everything is about, but it is always there.

Sometimes I illustrate how this can be true by personifying math. For instance, lets look at the simple formula 2+3+1=6.

The digit “2” is only one of four digits. So maybe we could say it is at most 1/4th of the total digits, or if we wanted to dive inappropriately deep into things, or “try too hard”, we could say the digit 2 is at best 1/6th of the equation. The equation isn’t all about the 2.

Unless you are the 2.

If you are the 2, you cannot escape that you are 2. No matter where you are plugged in, things change. 2 is what you are. I suppose you could try to lessen yourself and become two ones, but you are a digit and not a quantity. If you are part of an equation your 2ness isn’t everything, but it will always be something.

But this is an imperfect metaphor because we are not our race. Race is a social construct and its relevance is something painted onto us by society.

For instance, let’s use the equation 3(5-4)=3

The digit 2 has nothing to do with this equation. If 2 is blackness, or race, then race has nothing to do with 3(5-4)=3.  Now here is how race really works. When race is inserted into an equation it is an exponent. 3^2(5-4)=9. When race is added onto any digit, it changes everything. It isn’t everything, but it always matters.

Still imperfect.img_5699

Maybe race in America is 5+5+5+5+2+5=27. The 5s don’t think 2s are a big deal, they are barely a blip in the equation yet those annoying 2s won’t stop caring about 2s. I mean come on, there is a digit “2” on both sides of the equal sign, that is a lot of representation, 2 needs to chill out and just try harder to be a 5. Perhaps the 2s don’t really need to be angry all the time, but maybe they would be less likely to be upset if the 5s would just realize that 2s are 2s and understand that they factor into the equation differently than 5s.

Can I stop now?

I once knew a guy who was convinced the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had racist overtones because everything negative had hip hop references (Shredder) and all the good guys were European renaissance artists. He was a little bit too much, but his inserting race into a cartoon was much less of a big deal than double parking. He isn’t the cause of mass incarceration, racial profiling, the achievement gap, and income disparity.

When you look into American history you have to realize that race has always been there. You might think the Constitutional convention wasn’t all about race, sure, but how many of the men who participated would have been able to do so if they didn’t have slaves at home planting crops? How many of those men would have been educated if the schools hadn’t been in large part been funded by the selling of people? In all of those years when the American equation was being built to accommodate the “5s” we need to know that the “2s” were here the whole time. Not off on another land mass, here.

In the end, race does matter. It matters a lot and in America, it always has.

Happy Black History Month

 

 

The White Side of Black History: the cow jumped over the moon

Peter Tosh had a song with the lyrics, “We teach the youth to learn in school, that the dish ran away with the spoon. We teach the youth to learn in school, that the cow jump over moon. So you can’t blame the youth (when they don’t learn), you can’t fool the youth.”

It wasn’t exactly a hit single but he was making a point. Our children are not stupid, but we often treat them as if they are, and even worse, sometimes we make them that way. For instance, when my oldest was in 1st grade and just learning about holidays, which were very exciting since they included lots of activities in class, and days off from school, she asked about Martin Luther King Day. Her teacher explained that a long time ago black and white people weren’t allowed to be together. Martin Luther King Jr. thought this was wrong and helped get those laws changed so we could all be together. It was a nice age appropriate story, except is was horribly misguiding.

It was misguided not only in this instance but also in that this foundational error rarely gets corrected throughout the entirety of most American kid’s classroom education.

The soft pedaling of lessons on American racial history is damaging because we do everything we can to remove perpetrators. There are great injustices in history, and those who suffered through them did some amazing things in overcoming thanks to remarkable leaders like Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Abraham Lincoln. But somehow, these injustices just were. No one did them, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just the way things were. When contrasted with the Revolution caused by King George and Redcoats, and world War II caused by Hitler and the Japanese, it is silly to think Jim Crow was created by a cow jumping over the moon. Yet that is pretty much how we explain it.

So we can’t blame the youth when they don’t learn.

But kids grow into adults and we often hang on to what we learned when we were little. It is important for people to know, and not just in light of current political atmosphere but because it is the truth, that those laws were made by white people. Those Jim Crow laws were made by white people who at best were trying to protect their own position and possessions with complete disregard for black people, or at worst, with the intention of hurting and repressing black people. The makers of those laws represented and were what made up “America”. That was us.

My eight year old understands this. She is old enough to get it. She is also old enough to understand, but still be shocked by, the knowledge that when Martin Luther King, and a whole lot of other people, started working to change those laws, it was the police who tried to stop them. She got a new respect for MLK once she realized how dangerous it was to stand up for rights. After seeing photos of police dogs and fire hoses my little girl paused for a minute, thinking. She looked sort of sideways at me, her white father, and asked, “was it dangerous for white people too?”

Great question.

I told her about a young white man named Jonathan Daniels who tried to help black people register to vote in Alabama. He was shot by a Sheriff in the middle of the day with witnesses. The Sheriff didn’t get in trouble. We talked about how it was safe for white people if they just left things the way they were, because the police were on the side of the white people, but anyone, no matter their color, were in danger if they tried to change things. I also explained that black people were in danger no matter what they did.

She understood that. She didn’t like it, which is appropriate, but it made sense.

It is important that we as a society understand that problems, and especially laws, are never “just the way things are.” We make things how things are. All the high minded ideals of the American experiment rely upon us as a populace participating. That is what makes our nation remarkable. Despite our flaws and imperfections, we have built in mechanisms that allow change and have held us intact despite violence and horror and centuries if injustices. We actually CAN do something. Of course it might be dangerous- but so is roller skating.

So, on this first day of February, Black History Month, I write about these things, and urge us to learn about these things, not to foster anger or hatred or “dwell on the past”, but to simply understand the truth. We were taught that the dish ran away with the spoon and consequentially we don’t understand how we got to where we are… and we can be better. We need to learn about our history so we can be better.

Happy February.

MLK and John Lewis: people tried to kill them.

My daughter’s third grade class is reading a book with the N-word in it. I am mostly happy about this. She is old enough to learn and think about right vs. wrong and how complicated these things get when humans interact. I am only mostly, and not completely, happy about this book and subject because I know how teachers of small people usually deal with America’s history of racism and Martin Luther King Jr. and the way they, or really we, teach this subject is incomplete and is in large part why our current state of negative race relations is so hard to eradicate.img_5687

My children were taught in school that back in MLK’s time black and white people weren’t allowed to be together. We were forced to be separate and MLK didn’t think that was right. So he organized a speech and a march and got the laws changed. That is the gist of it. Now today, we have a day of service where in King’s name we do kind things for the community.

I like that general message but it isn’t really how it happened and our children need to know a more accurate truth. They need to know  because “those days” weren’t so long ago that all of those people are gone. And by “those people” I don’t just mean activists and freedom riders like John Lewis, I mean “those people” like the man who hit John Lewis in the face with a club.img_5828

You see, Jim Crow wasn’t really just “how things were”. No, people made it that way intentionally. They made it that way to preserve political power, to gain wealth, and to maintain an hierarchy with white people on top. And when people tried to pry some freedom and rights out of this intentionally created system, those in power reacted with violence. And those people in power were very much white.

In discussing the dangers faced by black people, who weren’t just fighting for a seat on a bus, but for the basic rights to be an American, she asked me if this struggle was dangerous for white people too. She assumed there would be white people helping because that is her experience. I told her about Jonathan Daniels and how he was shot in broad daylight by a deputy for trying to help black people vote. I explained to her that this deputy went to trial and was acquitted. She doesn’t know the word acquitted so I explained this means he didn’t get in trouble. She was appalled.

Me too.img_5719

But she has learned these stories and she is okay. She has learned the truth that just like bullies are real people on the playground, that historical bullies aren’t really just “how things were”.  There were bullies who made it that way and heroes that forced the bullies to change and if we want things to be good, if we want to get to the place MLK dreamed of, we have to face reality.

She is almost nine. Nine-year-olds are smart enough to know that bullies can change. She is smart enough and old enough to know that white people, not some ambiguous “they”, are the ones who created this whole back of the bus thing. She is smart enough to know that this truth doesn’t mean all white people are bad. She is smart enough to know the truth… unless we teach her to be otherwise.img_5704

I fear that we as a whole are not smart enough to get this lesson. At least our schools, the news, our policy, and the whole state of Arizona don’t think any of us are old enough to learn the truth. There can be no perpetrators in America’s racist past, only loving heros. As if teaching this fallacy in some way better prepares us for today’s challenges.

It does not. So today, I will not argue that John Lewis is a perfect man or perfect politician, but I will remember that a cop hit John Lewis in the face with a club because he wanted to be an American.

Bear Flag Republic and Manifest Destiny: Monterey

California, just like Texas, is kind of its own place. We don’t normally relate the two today, I blame the 60’s, but believe it or not both places have cowboys. Both places have also once been Spanish colonies, then Mexico, then their own country, and then a state. Oh yes, and there were plenty of people living in both places long before Spain showed up (though I wonder why anyone would have ever lived in North Texas or Barstow).img_1552

Californians are always trying to be innovators and ahead of the curve, in any way they can, so naturally they tried to imitate Texas.

As the capital of the Spanish state of Alta California, Monterey was the focal point of Anglo American capitalists and settlers.  Mexicans kicked out Spain in 1821 and then things got a little silly.

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Americans kept immigrating illegally to Mexican California and when they couldn’t get the support from the Mexican government, they decided they would just make the place America.

But first they declared independence. They raised a flag with a California Bear and one lone star… like the one in Texas. These Americans living in Mexico declared they were their own country of California… and then later that same year (1846) America went to war with Mexico and the folks with that bear flag said “just kidding independence. We would rather be America.”img_1529

So in Monterey, amid the nice little coffee shops and a remodeled Cannery Row, you can find an Independence Hall just like in Philadelphia. Remarkably like Philadelphia. feather quill pens and everything.img_1561

Then Texas struck oil and California struck gold, Hippies moved to San Francisco, and depending on who is president, both states talk about secession.  img_1556

The Invisible Hand is White

Adam Smith wrote that the actions of individuals seeking their own self-interest will have an added societal consequence of wealth distributing itself in line with the greatest societal good. This natural wealth distribution has come to be personified in the idea that there is an “invisible hand” controlling the market. This hand steadies, balances, and distributes wealth and resources. This hand is not regulated by any government or body of law, it is natural.dsc02460

Sometimes we believe that in America, this invisible hand is called “meritocracy”. This market force distributes wealth and resources to those who work hard, who are smart, or in other words, to those who have merit. This idea of making our own way or reaping the rewards of our own labor is one of the founding ideals of the American dream.  In America, if you work hard enough, you can be anything you want. I like the idea and I would even say that in large part, at least compared to many places in the world, we (America) do a relatively good job.

But merit is a funny thing. It can be hard to identify, hard to develop, even harder to measure. Quite often merit is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps really, merit matters but not in as much a way as we think, or at least it doesn’t matter most. It is difficult for any individual’s merit to carry them outside their sphere of relationships; hence the adage that success hinges on who you know, not what you know. Who you know matters.

Who you know, or better yet, who knows you, matters because that is often who judges what “is” and “is not” merit, and who possesses it.  In a system where individuals and institutions are free to exchange goods or resources as they see fit, those who have the most resources have the most influence on deciding what constitutes merit. Their biases, preferences, and needs are empowered to move, or at least nudge, this giant invisible hand. Consequentially, opportunity and achievement are often based on proximity, availability, reputation, network, and experience.  Merit may play only a sustaining role as opposed to a driving one. It has been that way for a long time. Take George Washington for example.

By all accounts General Washington was full of merit. He worked hard as a surveyor, proactively took risks as a soldier, and his writing shows a more than respectable measure of learning and brilliance. Thanks in large part to this merit he became one of the richest men in America, and even makes the list of one of the relative wealthiest Americans ever. Yet we could, and I would say should, also consider that the one thing Mr. Washington did that had the most direct influence on his wealth and position, was to marry a rich widow. Before that, George was on track to be Nathaniel Green. Mr. Green is respectable by all accounts but he isn’t carved on Mt. Rushmore, doesn’t have a state named after him, and no currency features his face. Washington is the one we all remember yet, by most all accounts, Green was a better general than Washington.

But George was born and lived in a hugely influential tidewater Virginia, and thanks to both inherited and married wealth, George enjoyed a continual revenue independent of his day to day actions which freed him up  to become George Washington rather than Nathaniel Green. But that was a long time ago, things have changed.

People today have infinitely more means and access to build new networks and accrue merit. Public school, Facebook, college, loans, and internships are everywhere and excepting Facebook, have been around for several generations. One result of such network broadening opportunities are instances like the Supreme Court which currently consisting of 8 people, includes 3 women, a Latina, an African-American, 5 Catholics, and 3 Jews. We have come a long way since George Washington. Yet even still with these 8 people with varying backgrounds they all went to either Harvard or Yale. It is not written that one must attend Harvard or Yale to be a Supreme Court Justice, nor is there a class at either school designed to give a student the specific skills they need to be supreme, yet this remains the path.  How and why it matters leaves plenty of room for argument.

Sticking with schools for a moment, when looking at the background of billionaires it is noteworthy that there are groupings of what college these rich people attended. The University of Pennsylvania counts 21 living billionaires among its alumni. Harvard and Yale both have 14. As we move down the list of schools the richest people are largely coming from, or at least passing through, the oldest, richest, and most prestigious universities. Again, is it the curriculum that is creating graduates who go on to such wealth? Do they learn something there that translates to money? Some, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates who both dropped out of Harvard, don’t ever graduate so their merit cannot be directly tied to their degrees. Yet still there is that clustering or concentration of wealth and success.

We could easily assume that going to college, marrying rich widows, and becoming a billionaire is all part of our meritocratic country where this invisible hand is scooping all the best and brightest into certain schools, is rewarding suitors who are best suited to manage dowries, and simply rewarding those who do the work and are most deserving. But then what about those who catch a bad break? There are of course many who through no fault of their own, are born in unfortunate situations. How does this hand deal with such? Our lore says this hand simply rewards their merit. Meritocracies allow for individuals to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Abraham Lincoln was uneducated and failed at election time and time again. But Honest Abe worked hard reading books and got back in the race after every defeat. Sure he also benefited from a fortuitous marriage, but we could easily argue that he earned that too (winning Mary Todd’s favor and whatnot). Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt, a great man. I make no argument that he did not earn or deserve his renown and place in history.

So does this mean that this free market invisible hand and meritocracy work? Maybe.

But then there is Abraham’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass.

Mr. Douglass, born a slave, was not only never taught to read, but was legally prevented from doing so. But he did. While Abraham Lincoln might have given out country’s most well-known speech, most every one at that time would have agreed that Douglass was a better orator. Douglass escaped slavery, educated himself, and become the first free black man to visit the white house when he went to go plead with President Lincoln for the better treatment of black soldiers. Douglass was indeed able to accomplish great things with his merit, yet he isn’t the one carved on Mt. Rushmore.

Mr. Douglass and Lincoln lived in a time where the law of the land dictated that the rewards for a black person’s merit were expected to be delivered to white people. In fact, in many, if not most cases, the merit of black people itself, not just the rewards, were ascribed to their white masters. For instance, when modern visitors tour George Washington’s home, they are told of Mrs. Washington’s prowess in the kitchen, you can even buy her cookbook in the gift shop. But she wasn’t the one who did the cooking. Black people were doing the cooking but their skills, or merit, were attributed to Martha. A visit to the website today further illustrates how the invisible hand of the 1700’s still effects the modern memory. http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/martha-washington/mistress-of-the-household/

But today many Americans see slavery and segregation as unfortunate blips in our ideology or system bearing little effect on our situations today. As if in those days the invisible hand had a finger on the scales of justice, but not anymore. Now the hand is back to balancing markets and allowing merit to be rewarded freely. We have set a new starting point, new zero, called “now” and we just move forward. Is free always fair? Of course not.

I argue a better question is if this modern freedom is just.

If we are living in a true meritocracy then we can assume that those who are rich deserve it, and those who are poor deserve that too. I do not argue that our society believes this specifically, but it does appear that we believe it generally. This belief drives how many of us vote, what we choose to study, and many of the decisions we make in life. It is a foundational idea in the American philosophy. It is part of who we are…

If we are white.

Do black Americans live in a meritocracy? (Do women?)If they do is it the same one as the white men?

For centuries the flow of resources and opportunities were artificially steered away from black individuals. This was not done strictly through laws and regulations but also through ideas. For example, when Thomas Jefferson was writing to persuade the world that a society where all men were created equal and should be free to pursue happiness without being obstructed, he also wrote that this freedom need not apply to black people because they were inferior (Notes on the State of Virginia). Jefferson argued that black people possessed less merit by nature and were incapable of managing resources directly. After reconstruction politicians were quite overt in campaigning on the idea that governing was best done by white people. Many were afraid that black people lacked the necessary skills and intelligence (merit) to govern, or even vote, and that allowing them either would lead to national destruction.Even when laws did not dictate segregation or discrimination, there was an idea that black people were not only less than white people, but were/are also more dangerous. This idea has been rampant and persistent in literature, music, news, business and media since our foundation.  This is not to say that all messages have been so, but these messages have always been in the environment.

This affects our meritocracy not only in that the spheres of influence and opportunity been limited for black people, but also in that the minds of those who determine and measure merit have been marinated in an ideology of white superiority. We as a nation believed that white men naturally possessed more merit.

Most of us are uncomfortable with this idea-that our minds are tainted- so much so that we have re envisioned how we collectively remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohammed Ali. We have honored Rosa Parks and lauded Booker T. Washington. We have worked hard enough to remove this mental poison that many of us now believe ourselves inoculated.  We in, large part, believe our society is free and safe from smallpox, mumps, and racism. Perhaps there may be the odd case or diagnosis, but they do not apply to the public. The meritocracy is safe.

Is this true? Are we a meritocracy?

When neighborhoods and schools are segregated both racially and economically, but laws do not require such, how do we explain or interpret the situation? When there is a disparity between black and white along the lines of wealth, academic achievements, and health, how do we explain that? Why the gap if our meritocracy is sound? Why are black people stopped, arrested, and incarcerated at rates higher than their white peers?

Why?

Are we all just getting what we deserve? Are we all simply rising to the appropriate level with regard to our merit? We have had black doctors, a black president, black secretary of state, black Supreme Court justice, and black billionaire, so there is apparently no strict cap on American black achievement. But yet that gap. These success stories are not the statistical or relative norm.

Why?

Maybe the invisible hand is white.

Racism Without Even Mentioning Race

Joan owns a house. She isn’t rich, she works hard, she doesn’t have a lot but she has that house. Sarah and her family move in next door, and now Joan’s house is worth less money. Sarah isn’t bad, she works hard as a stay at home mother and her husband is a plumber. Joan doesn’t hate Sarah, but that house represents everything she has and if the price goes down any more, her retirement is ruined. Joan cannot risk that. She cannot risk another family like Sarah moving in, so Joan puts her house up for sale.

Is Joan a racist?street

The whole reason Sarah moved into the neighborhood was because the schools were good. Education is Sarah’s passion. She has pinned her hopes for her children to those schools. After Joan left, another family just like Sarah’s moved in. This happened all across the neighborhood and the school district. Before long the whole area has turned over. House prices hit the basement and more and more people who wanted that good school moved in; motivated hard working people.

But now the school wasn’t the same. Many of those who moved out were the teachers. The school was funded from property taxes but now that property values had plummeted, so had school funding. Word got out real quick that the school wasn’t the same and now hiring good teachers to replace the ones who left got harder.

Sarah still owed 25 years on her mortgage and the real estate agent just couldn’t find her family anywhere else near enough to her husband’s job.

Meanwhile Joan lives a bit further out in the suburbs and is struggling to adjust to her new surroundings. She misses her old neighborhood, but at least here, her family and retirement are safe and the schools are good.

So again, does this make Joan a racist?

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The question isn’t meant to be a setup, and no, the scenario didn’t even mention race at all, so how could anyone, Joan or otherwise, be called a racist? So no, I’m not asking the question to trick anyone but rather in hopes that we might all truly consider the scenario. Of course in the real life American scenario, whether I say it or not, Joan is white and Sarah is black, or Latino, or Asian, or something not white. When non-white people move in to an area the housing prices drop, no matter what Joan or anyone else thinks or feels. Joan and Sarah could be best of friends, soul mates of sorts, and the market would still react. It is our economic reality.

No one has to use the words black, or white, or even race, but school funding shifts, people move, and reality changes.

So the question isn’t only whether Joan is racist or not, but does it even matter what Joan thinks?

At the end of the day, almost no matter where Sarah and her family go, this reality follows them. Sometimes there is, or was, financial shelter if somehow a black Sarah moves in and then no one follows, the market stabilizes. For the most part Joan will always be alright, but not always. Sometimes Joan’s don’t get out in time and they lose a nest egg. Or they are stuck in a school that they see sinking into the abyss through no fault of their own.  All of this without anyone saying they hate anyone because of their skin.

But this is how race functions.

So today…img_0844

I see and hear so many white people, the good white ones not the crazy ones, the ones I think are just like me (because we all think we are the good ones), reacting poorly when  black people complain about racism. We get up in arms or defensive and reactionary pointing out that we don’t hate anyone. We look around at each other in wonder because so many of us have never called anyone the N word and we almost never even talk about race and cannot fathom why ‘they’ keep bringing it up. We want to know where all the racists are because they aren’t us and we don’t know them. We get so caught up in who does or does not hate who and why.

But all the while the Sarahs of the world live in sub par housing markets with bad schools and if they call it race, they are asked to name a name and point a finger and none of us are willing to be pointed at. We are so concerned that it not be us, because we don’t hate, that me get annoyed at the conversation and frustrated and say that parents just need to be more involved in ‘their’ kids’ lives. We say that all lives matter. We say that microagressions are just another word for thin skin and we are tired of being blamed for all your problems and why is it always about that when no one is even talking about that. I mean Joan has problems too. Joan had to move, Joan has to work hard, Joan might lose her job but all everyone cares about is race and I want my neighborhood back!

So at the end of the day is Joan racist, and really, does that even mater to Sarah?

Nov 4th, 2008

On November 4th, 2008 I took the day off from work, strapped my 4 year old daughter into her car seat and drove our minivan to the Obama campaign’s North Philadelphia headquarters. There I was handed a list of people who needed rides to go cast their vote for president. We made five trips that day, carrying about 20 people.marleevotes-2

It was mostly old black ladies who gushed with gratitude and beamed with pride. Two of the ladies commented on how strange the neighborhood looked, they hadn’t left the house in years.

No one in the long lines complained as I wheeled a lady in a wheelchair past them to the front of the line.votersinline-5

I followed one address down a trash strewn street, up to a corner being patrolled by the usual crowd of young men in hoodies and white tees. As I pulled up, one of the guys in cornrows and saggy pants, punches a buddy in the shoulder, throws up a deuce to the others, and hops in my car. He smiled, shook my hand, and said, “I haven’t done this in a long time. Could you kinda show me how the voting machine works?” I left that act of helpfulness to a poll worker. When I gave the guy a ride home he had no problem letting me drop him off right in front of his crew, as opposed to “around the corner” like an embarrassed teenager.phonebank

Looking back 8 years later, that day still holds all of its power and meaning. There was such a positive spirit of hope and cooperation that no long line or inconvenience could bring us down. It was a day full of meaningful acts. It was like seeing a world monument, the Eiffel tower or Mount Rushmore in person for the first time. It was the sort of thing you read about in books, but now confront in real life. It felt like that. We knew, in the moment, in real time, that this was that sort of day. The sort people would read about for years to come. It felt great.

It still does.marleevotes-5

On this coming Tuesday I will go to the polls and vote. Though this election could be remarkable in similar ways, it doesn’t feel anywhere the same. I didn’t go knock on anyone’s door this go round, or volunteer my time. Perhaps it is my latent misogyny, or some sort of patriarchal bias. Maybe. I’ve tried to dig pretty deep to see if that is what it is. Perhaps. But I think it is more than just that. While that event was so uplifting, this one is packed with pure anxiety. Apprehension. Fear. I would wager everything I own, that every one of those people I drove 8 years ago, would do it all exactly the same again today. Nothing, not one thing, in my rear view mirror looking back takes even the slightest bit of shine off that day.

Maybe it is because I no longer have a mini van. More likely, it is because there isn’t a current equivalent of this song.

 

A Quagmire Caused by the Mud We Have Slung at Each Other.

This is a quagmire caused by the mud we have slung at each other. We have known exactly what both Clinton and Trump are for decades. Now is not the time to double down and give either a chance to be anything new. They are what they are and it is fair to measure them as such.img_5981

Hillary Clinton:

She attended elite schools, Wellesley and Yale, was active in politics while an undergraduate and as a lawyer published academic articles on the legal rights of children. She married an ambitious politician and engaged in a career as a political spouse. By all appearances she endured marital infidelity and stayed in the name of political expediency.  Never just arm candy and state dinner conversation haver, she has always been involved in policy and brokering. She has been running for president since she was first lady. She was elected senator and served two terms. She ran for president, lost the nomination and was appointed secretary of state. She left that post to continue her run for president. She makes an exorbitant amount of money giving speeches and her book deal included a huge advance. Since becoming a senator she has been a centrist, supporting war, no threat to Wall Street, and backed the president on health care; an issue she championed as first lady.

She is a politician in every sense of the word. Her position and experience have granted her access to power, authority, and influence which she appears to use in order to gain more of the same. She is without a doubt brilliant, ambitious, with a willingness to compromise principles to attain a goal, or perhaps more directly put, her principles are that goals must be attained and that all other things called principles may or may not be adopted depending on how they serve her agenda. That agenda almost always has at its core, the next election. She is arguably the hardest working most determined most experienced politician to run for office. She has been running for office most of her adult life and bears the accompanying scars and attributes.img_5088

Donald Trump:

He attended an elite school, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Wharton. With funding from his father he started working in real estate buying and managing buildings. He branched out into casinos and hotels and since then has filed bankruptcy six times. His real estate company was sued by the federal government for racial discrimination. He was a founder of the United States Football League. It folded. He started an airline. It folded. He started a “business opportunity” marketing scheme which he called a university. It folded. He has always had, and touts as much in his book, a reputation for using legal and financial bullying as regular tactic in getting whatever it is he wants.

He has always liked to be in the media and has consistently portrayed himself as something akin to a caricature of Hugh Hefner. He has been married three times, had public extramarital affairs, gone on radio programs that were marketed as shocking and trashy and bragged publicly of being both those things. He bought the Miss USA pageant, which was the second best known pageant behind Miss America, and chose to differentiate it from its competitor by making it trashier. He has been the star of two reality television shows, Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, both of which are based around making money, conjuring interpersonal conflict, and supplication to Donald’s firing authority. He has spent most of his life marketing his name as a brand that stands for, above all else, wealth. His view of wealth is that it is most important and should be overtly displayed.img_5969

It is silly and rather embarrassing for us Americans to argue with each other or split hairs regarding who these people are. We know, and have always known, who they are. There is nothing new here.

Wikileaked emails from the Clinton campaign exposing manipulation and flirtation with nefarious money only confirm what we have always known, or suspected about Clinton.

Leaked video of Trump being lecherous provide nothing new but rather confirm what he has always publicly said about himself.

They are both known quantities. Please let’s stop arguing that they aren’t who they have shown themselves to be. Let’s stop arguing that they are suddenly extra things that they have never been before.  Let’s be honest with ourselves and come to grips with the truth that these people, who are exactly what they have always been, are who we chose.

If you dislike who Clinton is and then chose Trump, accept that. Accept that he is a lecherous failure at business that relentlessly chases fame and fortune giving little thought to anything else. Do not kid yourself that these negatives are the result of media bias or Clinton lies. The one thing that Donald has the most well documented trail of success in, is leveraging the media for his own benefit. Accept that either you are comfortable with who he is, or that you see these things as less nefarious than what you see in his opponent.

If you dislike Trump and chose Clinton, accept that. Accept that she is and has always been, smart enough to know the rules surrounding things like emails and servers and protocols and that she is calculating and measured enough to take intentional risks along the path to election. Accept that either you are comfortable with who she is, or that you see these things as less nefarious than what you see in her opponent.

We need to own it and not lie to ourselves or to others in some feeble attempt to assuage the cognitive dissonance we are experiencing due to our own compromised principles. Doing so is dishonest. Doing so is dangerous. Doing so entrenches us in the sort of immoral self lies that have caused America to embrace slavery while shouting the word freedom. The sort of self lies that allow us to conquer tropical islands while simultaneously standing against monarchical expansion and colonialism. It allows us the sort of self lies that put our most precious and noble values in jeopardy in order to support our darkest failings.

We are better than this. We must be. And we can start by simply being honest with ourselves and each other; recognizing our two candidates for who they are.DV IMAGE