To turn back white supremacy, we must combine the light of reason with the heat of emotion, and add persistence. (More)

“Remember Charleston!” Part III: Light, Heat, and Persistence (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers white supremacy and Hillary Clinton’s call to “name it and own it and then change it” in the wake of the Charleston Massacre. Thursday we saw how ‘naming it’ has begun in the symbolic acts of removing the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders from public buildings. Yesterday we saw discuss how ‘owning it’ requires us to acknowledge structures that maintain white supremacy half a century after the Civil Rights movement. Today we conclude with ‘changing it,’ our minds and our culture.

“In almost every institution of our lives”

On Monday, President Obama brought up structural racism:

The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives – that casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it – racism, we are not cured of it. It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.

Predictably, the media response focused on overt discrimination – the president’s use of the word ‘nigger’ – and ignored his point aboutthe structural discrimination. The Washington Post’s Emily Badger rebuts a common complaint about Baltimore school spending, and continues:

The main problem with this argument, though, is that it involves a much larger misunderstanding of history. It assumes that decades of institutional racism and inequality designed into all realms of life in a city like Baltimore – in the school system, the transportation network, the housing market, the criminal justice system, the lending industry, the job market, the air – might be fixed by $15,287 per pupil in spending today, if it were just well-spent.

In fact, the historical problem in Baltimore – and in Milwaukee, and in Cleveland, and other places – is much larger than the small-bore programs or even school spending that we’ve thrown at it. And its effects have stayed with us even as overt racism largely has not.

She follows with a wonderful collection graphs, that prove her thesis. If you’re unfamiliar with the data, it’s enlightening.

“Race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare”

The New York TimesPaul Krugman cited academic research in discussing “the shadow of slavery”:

The second paper, by the economists Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, was titled “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-style Welfare State?” Its authors – who are not, by the way, especially liberal – explored a number of hypotheses, but eventually concluded that race is central, because in America programs that help the needy are all too often seen as programs that help Those People: “Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”

Now, that paper was published in 2001, and you might wonder if things have changed since then. Unfortunately, the answer is that they haven’t, as you can see by looking at how states are implementing – or refusing to implement – Obamacare.
The answer is, 22 states at this point, although some may eventually change their minds. And what do these states have in common? Mainly, a history of slaveholding: Only one former member of the Confederacy has expanded Medicaid, and while a few Northern states are also part of the movement, more than 80 percent of the population in Medicaid-refusing America lives in states that practiced slavery before the Civil War.

Lest you wonder what Medicaid expansion has to do with structural racism, a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that refusing to expand Medicaid disproportionately impacts people of color. Of the 4.8 million adults denied access to Medicaid, over half – 2.6 million – are people of color.

Again, that data is … enlightening.

“That battle flag makes me wince”

Last week Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention – a denomination that was founded on support for slavery – said it was time to take down the Confederate flag:

This week the nation reels over the murder of praying Christians in an historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. At the same time, one of the issues hurting many is the Confederate battle flag flying at full-mast on the South Carolina Capitol grounds, even in the aftermath of this racist act of violence on innocent people.
The flag of my home state of Mississippi contains the battle flag as part of it, and I’m deeply conflicted about that. The flag represents home for me. I love Christ, church and family more than Mississippi, but that’s about it. Even so, that battle flag makes me wince – even though I’m the descendant of Confederate veterans.
White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African American brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the aftermath of yet another act of white supremacist terrorism against them.

Moore certainly knew that history before last week. Facts and reason did not change his mind. Instead the heat of emotion – “the nation reels” “made me wince” “yet another act of white supremacist terrorism” – turned facts and reason into action.

“Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions”

That’s a lesson we saw two years ago in our discussion of the Heath brothers’ book Switch, and yesterday President Obama addressed it explicitly in his moving eulogy for Clementa Pinckney:

[Taking down the Confederate flag] would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to be way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate.

Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal-justice system and lead us to make sure that that system’s not infected with bias, that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement, and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal, so that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote

By recognizing our common humanity, by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American. By doing that, we express God’s grace.

Our horror, shame, and revulsion in the face of ugly tragedy can spur us to action. And the ugly tragedies have continued. Since the massacre last week in Charleston, six black churches have burned in four states and at least three have been confirmed as arson.

“That’s how we lose our way again”

Yet President Obama also warned that facts and reason animated by emotion are not enough to create change. We also need persistence:

Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete. But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allow ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.

Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual. That’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change, that’s how we lose our way again.

The structures of white supremacy are so broad and deep that solutions seem beyond our reach. The road to racial justice will be long and difficult. How can we foster the persistence we’ll need?

One part of the solution, as gyms and weight loss clinics have shown, is not to rely on your own willpower. It’s easy to think and feel about white supremacy when it dominates our news. But when the mainstream media’s focus moves on to other stories, who will remind you to think and feel about white supremacy?

This is a good time to look at your circle of friends, both your face-to-face and social media contacts, and seek out diverse voices who discuss experiences and issues that you might otherwise miss. Listen to them, and resist the impulse to turn away when you feel uncomfortable.

This is also a good time to look back at times when you kept quiet – because you were afraid, or didn’t know how to react – as others embraced white supremacy in jokes or other comments. Replay those conversations and consider what you could have said or done. Talk with friends and rehearse what you might say next time.

By broadening what we hear and care about, and teaching ourselves to act in ‘small’ ways, we can change our minds and build habits of light and heat, and the persistence to make “Remember Charleston!” not just a passing phrase, but a rallying cry for justice.


Happy Saturday!