It Isn’t About Playing Nice in the Sandbox, It is About the Deathtraps Hidden in the Sand.

Let us not twist Martin Luther King Jr’s work into something it was not.

It was not about turning the other cheek and being silent. It was about getting punched in the face and persisting.

It was not about us all getting along and being nice, it was about claiming promised rights and justice.IMG_5719

Too many of us were taught that the civil rights movement was about where someone sat on a bus and how the solution was friendship. Simple friendship and getting along was no more the point than a bruise is the point of cancer. This simple narrative ignores the devastation and violence imposed on Black Americans by local governments, school boards, police departments, corporations, as well as run of the mill every day white people.

Black people were not fighting for the right to sit on a bus or drink from a fountain, they were screaming, shouting, fighting, and dying, for basic rights promised to all Americans. Those rights were being systematically and violently denied. The “colored” signs and fountains were just a little token on the surface to warn against those who might be tempted to scratch a little deeper. This was never really about sitting happily next to each other, it was about the fact that one group of people weren’t allowed to ever sit and rest.

Friendship without rights or justice is a degrading sort of condescension that was never a goal of the movement. Simplifying the issues of racial injustice to the basics of treating everyone kindly is similar to telling a child not to sneeze on a gunshot victim in the ER. Of course we should be kind to each other but there were, and are, bigger issues at play.

But Dr. King did talk of the day when we could be friends. I dream of that day. I think we have seen glimpses of it, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that the friendship is the goal. It isn’t.

It (friendship and harmony) is, and would be, the natural consequence of actual justice and equality- which we have never completely attained. The field was never leveled, injustice persists, and many of us haven’t woken from our dreaming state to do the hard work required to get to that promised land.

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.

How the Good People Enforce Racism; we didn’t mean it.

I grew up in a HUD home. My parents were young and my father’s job paid little to nothing. He had turned the G.I. Bill into a college education and was offered a job as a high school teacher. They applied for a subsidy and whomever it was in charge at the time decided to give my folks a break and they became homeowners in part on the taxpayer’s dime. My family lived in this home for more than thirty years and once all six of us children were gone and my parents retired, they were able to sell that home at more than four times its original value. This sale funded their dream retirement home and has enabled them to live a life where they routinely serve others and give to those in their new community and family.

That was a great home.

houseinsandyWhen we look at today’s problems surrounding race and poverty it is easy to forget how we got here. It is even easier to misunderstand why we are still here now. Often times people like me, white middle class folks who are trying to be good people, disregard accusations of racism, whether leveled at us personally (which almost never happens) or more likely at American society in general. We reject these accusations because we just don’t see it. We often don’t see it because we don’t really know what we are looking at.

So let’s look at my family’s HUD home.

I grew up in a stable household in large part because someone did something good. Someone signed an application or approved a form that gave my parent’s an opportunity. Maybe they deserved it, I like to think they did, but they got a house they wouldn’t have been able to afford on their own. That is a great thing. I consider the fact that I didn’t grow up in a public housing project a good thing. Not that projects are inherently bad, but most projects are rougher and more volatile environments than the one I enjoyed during my formative years. There were other HUD homes in the area of course, but I have no idea which one’s they were; they didn’t have signs in the front yard. Everyone knows which developments are projects. I’ll bet that whoever owns that house now has no idea it was originally built with government money.

When homes like mine were being built it was against the law to sell them to Black people. That law was changed, much like most similar laws, and since then we have fooled ourselves to think society changed too. We haven’t.IMG_3086

What I mean is that there were good people back then who weren’t trying to be racist, just like there are people not trying to be racist now. I have no doubt when the individual who approved my parents’ home purchase did so; they were not intending it to be a racist act. That person was likely just trying to give my folks a chance. It was a good thing to give them a shot. I’m glad it happened. But then, and too often now, this same chance isn’t given to Black people. This is how modern racism works.

Racism doesn’t have to mean the proverbial “you” hates Black people. Often times people where I grew up never even thought about Black people. I am willing to believe that the HUD official in Salt Lake City gave no thought to anything even remotely race related while doing his job. In his (at the time it was most likely a he) world race laws had little to do with his daily life and it just so happened that HUD loans weren’t available to Black people. It didn’t have anything to do with him.

Today most things work exactly the same, just without the laws. We don’t need a law, or need to hate anyone, to give someone else a shot. Hating a Black person doesn’t have anything to do with helping out someone in need. Helping is always good.

But reality is that we most often have sympathy for, and help, those with whom we can most closely relate. We sympathize with the young couple fresh out of school. We see their potential and have some faith that all they need is a push, we often forgive the small discretions in the past having faith that those things are bygones.

And more often than not those we choose to help are the same race as the helper.

There are exceptions of course, especially with government programs. Lots of white social service workers helping lots of generationally poor Black folk. I am amazed at how many of those white folks resent the help they provide. Amazed. I have helped, and seen others efforts to help, and watched as those given a shot completely blow their chance. People lack gratitude. People are lazy. People make profoundly poor choices and squander what little resources and opportunity they have. All people do this.CIMG4966

What so often happens when help is rebuffed or executed poorly across racial lines is that the helper starts looking for where it all fell apart. Everything made sense in the mind of the helper in the beginning, but still it failed, and the helper is left to explore the things they don’t grasp. Most of us don’t understand race. I have seen quite a few white helpers come away from failed ventures with newly entrenched racist ideas. They didn’t intend to become racist, nor do they leave hating Black people, but race is the thing they don’t get and it becomes the fly in the philanthropist’s ointment.

This happens again, and again, and again; and it happens today, and people form opinions and policy accordingly. That is how it has always worked.

I grew up in a HUD home thanks to a policy written and implemented by people who look like me. Other G.I.’s raised their families, or at least tried, in projects and ghettos and the “hood” not always because of some overt hatred, but because they weren’t given the same break.

Things like this don’t change magically over time. We have to change them intentionally.IMG_8015