Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition

February 18, 2021

I have a thing about Black History Month. I really get into it but I wish it was on a longer, warmer month. June seems logical. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right now. I try to make sure black authors are in front of their eyes each winter. There’s just a binge on learning cool stuff. Did you know that the ice cream scoop was invented by an African-American named Alfred L. Cralle? No scooped ice cream for racists!

My love of the black history binge might have had something to do with a white supremacist moment I had in 1979. In my tenth grade journalism class had an assignment to write an editorial. The title of this editorial, written by a white kid in a historic Klan town was… ready…?, “If They Have White History Month, Why Don’t We Have White History Month?” That’s how my 15-year-old brain was processing the state of race in ’79. My teacher’s response was, “That’s a very strong opinion, Randy.” It should have been, “Every month is ‘White History Month,’ you racist twerp.” So maybe my affinity for Black History Month is a penance for that sin, or the many others.

This year’s Black History Month is a bit more meaningful, in wake of the massive BLM protests last year. But also because my daughter, Cozette, is ready to dive in herself. I was where she is, first grade, in February, 1970, which was the very first Black History Month. The closest I got to knowing that I should think about race at 6 was staring at a “Black is Beautiful” poster in a shop on an a family trip to Niagara Falls. The women in the poster was topless, with a massive afro and a clenched fist. I was transfixed. Cozy is more familiar with images of Breonna Taylor that are painted on murals in our city.

Unlike me, Cozy is growing up in a house with plenty of black heroes. MLK is on the fridge and Motown Magic is her go-to cartoon. (I did have Fat Albert but I don’t know if that undid any racial stereotypes in the 1970s. I’m looking at you, Mushmouth.) But even better, Cozy’s teacher has her first grade class on a healthy diet of Black History Month stories. She’s started her winter school days with lessons about MLK, Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, among others. 

Her school is sponsoring a Black History Month art show, in which students complete portraits of African Americans that have inspired them. Cozy’s already done portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so she chose Louis Armstrong, someone who gets a lot of play in this house. (Fun fact: Cozy’s grandma met Mr. Armstrong after winning a saxophone contest when she was 16. In awe, her main memory was that he swore like a sailor.) At 6, Cozy pretty much captured the greatness of Satchmo. She’s a true jazzbo. As much as she loves Louis’ “wrinkly” voice, she prefers Miles.

Having a teacher who explains why Black History Month matters has been a wonderful thing. How do you explain to a six-year-old the horrors of slavery? “People owned other people just because of the color of their skin.” When I asked her what slavery meant, she grew silent and talked about her black friends and how it made her sad. Kids her age are quite aware of race, especially if they are not white. Cozy’s Mexican genes are talking to her European genes, while across the street from her African-American friends and in a house where her parents are always talking about racism. It must be a lot for her brain.

To help her out, I bought her a copy of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, brilliantly illustrated by Lauren Semmer. D is for diaspora. She fell in love with the vibrancy of it, especially the entry on George Washington Carver (she loves peanut butter) and the “M is March” section, featuring BLM posters, like the ones she made last summer. In addition, PBS has made a point of centering black history in its children’s programming. She’s been glued to a cartoon called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, learning about Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ella Fitzgerald. (The 1956 Ella and Louis album is now on repeat play, which is a very good thing, and Cozy has taken up scatting.)

At 6, I think Black History Month is about celebrating how African-Americans have made life so much better in America. She has an understanding of the pain caused by racism, but it’s not time yet to wade into the torture, trauma, suffering, exclusion, and dehumanization the begs us to make black lives matter every month. I can see her processing it through her peers. Generation Z kids not only have more diverse friend-groups than their elders, they themselves are more diverse. Where “mulatto” was a pejorative a hundred years ago, bi-racial+ is just the norm now. But these kids still live in world that pushes a white supremacist worldview. Despite Motown Magic, the majority of the cartoon, book, and TV characters she sees are white. And male. So while it’s certainly too soon to sit her in front of the TV for a screening of 12 Years a Slave or 13th, she can definitely start picking up on the whole unfairness of racism story and that people who look like her father benefit from it and that people who look like her friend Jaden are challenged because of it.

It’s a tricky path. What I knew about race at 6 came from horribly racist norms. People who lived in the city (i.e. black people) were savages compared to those of us (white people) outside of the city. The urban jungle was framed in contrast to “civilized” society. Cozy lives in the city with plenty of black friends, so that hateful dichotomy is gone, but the complexity of racism remains. It seems like the “primary school” agenda is simply that black culture is amazing and that our black friends have faced unfair struggles that we are committed to fixing.

I’m supposed to be an expert on this topic, but when it’s your kid, it’s a real challenge. You really want them to value everyone as fully humanized but also recognize the forces that have stood in the way of that simple truth. It’s harder than I thought. But she’s smart. I think she’s getting it, complete with the soundtrack. Thank you to all the great teachers who make February matter.

Two Robots Meet on Mars – A Valentines Poem for My Wife

February 14, 2021

Two robots meet on the barren surface of Mars

Because of a bump in the road, one’s roving path was altered 

Putting it into an intersecting path with the other

It was on a large plain in a basin called Utopia

They took it as a sign

They both stopped, not expecting to see another robot on this empty planet

What were the odds?

They had traveled countless kilometers

(That they had counted, being so lonely)

And only seen red hills and valleys

They took each other in

As data

With their camera eyes

Same switches, same wheels, same solar panels

Yet they were not the same

With a few awkward beeps and whirls

They decide there on Utopia Planitia

To abandon their missions that had been programmed

By their motherboard, and whoever programmed her

Without logic or algorithm a new mission was created

The two robots made the choice

To turn off Mission Control

And build a new world of their own in the basin

They used the husk of an old Soviet lander to build a house

And stripped their bodies of circuits and pulleys to make a smaller robot to care for

Mars’ moons passed by quickly

And the stars shifted in the sky slowly

And each Martian day the two robots became more integrated

A singular mission in a harsh climate

Freezing winds without a flower in sight

It didn’t matter, there in Utopia

The two robots and their little robot

Collected information, charting their place in the cosmos

And found a new source of energy on which they could thrive

Two robots met on Mars and fell in love

Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism

February 7, 2021

Watching the Wheels began as a parenting blog but it’s turning into a policy blog. My broader social commentary started with the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and exploded with the ascent of Donald J. Trump. I promise we’ll get back to the kid, but there is a pressing reason I’m spending some extra energy on right wing extremism: April 19.

April 19th is the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, collapsing a federal office building, and has since been linked to “Patriots’ Day” by the right-wing underground. That underground is now very overground and the chatter in their world is that is that the January 6th Capitol attack was just the warm up. Fasten your seatbelts for April 19, 2021. We could see another wave of right-wing violence as they make their play for Civil War II.

It’s been encouraging to see the Biden Administration pivot to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority, including ordering a nationwide assessment of the emerging threat, with the National Security Council responding in a way reminiscent of how the intelligence community responded after 9/11. The Biden team’s focus and the fact that capable experts like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) will take the lead on the Counterterrorism Subcommittee are an encouraging start. There are plenty of challenges ahead, including our lack of a federal definition of “domestic terrorism” and the policing of such actions that also respects our first amendment protections.

But domestic terrorism is also an international issue.

I was having a conversation last week with a representative of a foreign consulate who was looking for ways that her government could navigate the post-January 6th world that the Biden Administration had inherited. (I won’t name her nation, but we’ve had a relationship with them since 1776.) As we spoke, it became clear that there are multiple international intersections in our efforts to confront right-wing extremism. The issues that came up revolved around three themes; intelligence, trade issues, and international relations. There are probably more but this is what came up in our hour-long talk.

White supremacy as a global movement

Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a decidedly internationalist trend in the nationalist responses to globalization. For me, this began in 1990s and charting how racist skinheads in America were looking to Serbian nationalism and the Balkanization of Yugoslavia as a roadmap to a race war in the United States. Notorious white supremacists like David Duke have cultivated large followings (and income flows) from Mother Russia. Any European nation that has struggled with an inflow of migrants has seen a surge in Neo-Nazi violence. In July 2018, I was in the UK to study British CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs and I worked my way into an English Defense League rally in London, under the shadow of Big Ben. Supporters of banned nationalist Tommy Robinson were laying out anti-immigrant tirades to a crowd of angry white men, many in Trump hats. In England. Two weeks ago, Germany handed a right-wing extremist a life sentence after he was found guilty of shooting a pro-immigration politician in the head at point-blank range, killing him. Racist nationalism is an international problem. The fact that mass casualty events in Oslo, Norway, lead to similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which lead to similar attacks in El Paso, Texas is proof.

The specter of a pan-Aryan movement has long been a reality. I discussed it in my search on Odinist prison gangs in the 2000s. An international network of racist pagans shared plans for their racial holy war from behind prison walls. Before that, research on white power rock bands traveling to Europe, revealed the trafficking of Neo-Nazi paraphernalia and ideology across the Atlantic. In 1991, I was interviewing a skinhead in (what had just been East) Berlin, Germany, and told me, in broken English, “We have many friends in your country.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate introduced S. 4080 – the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act. It’s a great start (if it ever passes) to assess the nature of the global connections to the domestic white supremacist call for a racial revolution. In the wake of the “dry run” on January 6th, the intelligence part of this effort needs to include four key elements.

  1. Foreign support for domestic extremists. While privacy rules make the work difficult, intrepid journalists have started following the money and unmasking the financial backers of the radical right, like the Mercer family. It is likely that money coming to back the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other groups hell bent on their “boogaloo” civil war is also coming from sources outside the United States, including Russia. The financial streams must be revealed and interrupted.
  2. Foreign disruption and misinformation. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that a little disinformation dropped into your cousin’s Facebook feed can turn a country upside down. In 2015, few people (including Republicans)  thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president. In January, 2017 he was sworn in. We know that Russia played a role in that campaign. Foreign interference that repeats tropes like “Black Lives Matter is a communist organization” are a part of our digital realities and serve to push “I’m not racist, but..” Americans into white supremacist worldviews.
  3. Encrypted communications. A lot of racist cross-national communication is right out there in the open, on Parler, Twitter, 4chan, and even Instagram. But white supremacists have long utilized encrypted communications. Whether they are sending messages on Telegram, Tox, through video game networks, or communicating in handmade codes on the deep deep web, the chat includes bomb making techniques, hit lists, and potential coordination on terrorist plots. They’ve looked to ISIS and other international terror groups for both mainstream recruitment techniques (ex. YouTube) as well as for tips on secretive channels of communication. We must work with our international partners to penetrate this information flow.
  4. Pan-Aryan movements. More must be done to understand the international connections of white supremacist terror organizations, like Atomwaffen Division. We’ve tended to think of these groups as “home grown” and disregarded their international connections. The internet has linked racist organizations in South Africa to similar groups in South Carolina. The role that Facebook live-streaming played in the 2019 Christchurch shooting that left 51 dead demonstrated that these so-called nationalists are playing to an international audience.

How trade policy impacts white nationalism

During my discussion with the consulate’s office, the issue of trade policy came up. It wasn’t a topic I was expecting or felt qualified to talk about, but it was clear there were some issues that were relevant. Much of racial nationalism is fueled by globalization. Globalization diminishes national identity (There’s an infinite number of McDonalds and Starbucks in Paris) and increases immigration. This was an obvious driver in Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote, the rise of Trump (“America first!”), as well as racialized nationalist movements in Poland, Germany, and Greece. Trade policies designed to reduce pushes into white supremacist movements and their calls for violence must be mindful of the following two questions:

  1. How does this policy impact agrarian or manufacturing labor segments? The very first of racist skinheads I studied in the late 1980s were racist skinheads because of deindustrialization. Their parents were being laid off of their manufacturing jobs which were being shipped to Mexico and China. And the only analysis they were getting was from the White Aryan Resistance who told them that it was a global Jewish cabal that was destroying their shot at the American dream. My 1990s skinheads added the giant sucking sound of NAFTA as the backdrop of their downward mobility. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 600,000 manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico after President Clinton signed NAFTA in 1994. Any trade policy must look at the impact on blue collar labor, whether in the factory or the field. An example of countering the trend, Samsung ovens are now made in Tennessee. The profits still flow to South Korea, but a lot of workers are getting to bank their money thanks to the push to revitalize our industrial labor force. This type of trade policy breaks the back of jingoism.
  2. How does this policy impact labor migration? Environmental policies will impact migration patterns as the planet warms. Refugees leaving drought ravaged lands where farming and access to clean water are stressed will become a fact of life unless international policies tackle climate change. Similarly, trade policies (which now often have an environmental component) can be mindful on the impact of the migration of labor. If a policy is likely to increase the migration into the United States, the benefit to Americans must be made clear. Otherwise, the policy (and the earnest foreign workforce that emerges because of it) becomes a white supremacist weapon for scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate crimes.

To work with America you must understand America

There is also a conversation going on from Philadelphia to the Philippines about what kind of country America is in 2021. Especially after four years of Trump. Our standing on the world stage has plummeted as our national interests were supplanted by Donald’s personal interests. As the Biden diplomatic team repairs the damage done to our international relationships, our global partners need to be mindful of four factors that drive activism in the extreme right.

Because each of these is a complex issue, worthy of pages of analysis, I’ll be incredibly brief.

  1. Understanding the split in the Republican Party. The symbolic division between the party of Representative Lynne Cheney (R-WY) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) reflects the split between the “Grand Ol’ Party,” with it’s core conservative values, and the nut-job wing that remains loyal to Trump, QAnon and the calls for an uprising to defeat the “communist” Democrats.
  2. Understanding that nationalism is a response to globalization. Over one hundred years ago fervent calls to “(Your country here) first!” set the stage for the “war to end all wars” and paved the way for the rise of fascism. Without the strength of our international treaties (I’m looking at you, UK), we’re back to square one.
  3. Understanding paths to radicalism and access to resources for deradicalization. There’s more than enough scholarship on why people become extremists. Programs in Sweden (Exit) and Britain (Prevent) have pioneered excellent methods to deradicalize extremists. It’s time to share the wisdom. 
  4. Confronting extremism in the military. We are not the only nation whose militaries contain Neo-Nazis who dream of bombing Israel, African and Arab countries, and liberal metropolitan areas. A global strategy to confront this issue should be the first step in an international effort to prevent large scale attacks.

And now the work begins

We talked about a great deal in one hour. I can really squeeze a lot in when I think there’s a ticking time bomb, like April 19th. That day may come and go without event, which I desperately hope will be the case. (April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, so wait to exhale.) America is starting from less than zero because of the hole Donald Trump dug. But, with the help of our friends around the world, we can put our shoulders to the wheel and ensure our common dream to live in a safe and stable nation.

Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II

February 1, 2021

I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he posted on my Facebook page, “You can either support Antifa or be my son.” I replied, “You know I’ve worked to oppose fascism my entire adult life. I am, by definition Antifa – anti-fascist.” His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. Unfriended by my Trump-loving father.

I know this scenario has played out in thousands of ways in American families as the lines of division have been drawn up. “Trump cult” brother against “libtard” brother, QAnon daughter against “communist mother,” or in my case, Antifa son against “Anyone who listens to the mainstream media has drank the Kool Aid” father. I was going to call my dad after election day, and then after inauguration day. I keep putting it off because I don’t want to hear his fragile old white man “sky is falling/Joe Biden is too old” blather.  (For the record, Joe is eight months younger than my father.) If I can’t heal my relationship with my old man, how can America heal this chasm that separates us? And is this how families felt before that last civil war?

Like a lot of Americans, while watching the January 6 storming of the capitol (It’s its own Wikipedia entry now) unfold on TV, I more than half-expected to see someone I knew (including my older-than-Biden father). We might have heard some great calls for unity on Inauguration Day but it feels like we’re more divided than ever. Trump still holds the reigns of the GOP from his gilded palace in Florida. A large percentage of the 74 million people who voted for Trump think that a large percentage of the 81 million people who voted for Biden were dead people. And complete nut jobs like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green are either seen as prophets or complete nut jobs.

It seems so hard to cross this divide. The mother of one of my childhood friends (who I had a mad crush on when I was 12) just posted something about Biden letting in “illegal immigrants who carry diseases.” My first response was to call out her racism. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But am I just driving her back into her fragile white castle? I’m good on a Facebook smackdown. I’ve got links to New York Times articles, persuasive statistics, hilarious memes, and, if all else fails, a facepalm gif.

Then I remember what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years, helping people leave the white supremacist movement (WSM). There are two ways to think of the WSM. The first is a fractured subculture of hate groups, white nationalists, and anti-immigrant organizations. The second way is to see the white supremacist movement is as America writ large. The real advocates of making America white again are not Klansmen and Proud Boys, they are people like my friend’s mom who would never own her own racism. “I’m not racist, but…” So maybe the things I learned about extracting Neo-Nazi skinheads could be helpful to talking to people stuck Trump’s in narrow nationalist vision of “patriotism.”

How has this improved your life?

One of the questions that has helped to get racist to rethink their commitment to racist activism is, “Has anything about this choice you’ve made made your life better?” They’ll sputter a bit and maybe parrot some line about finding “pride.” But then you push them with questions about their family relations, their economic prospects, their legal problems, their love lives and they’ll start to see they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The silly “white utopia” that they are physically fighting for isn’t coming and they are increasing socially isolated. I had one troubled young skinhead tell me, “It’s so hard to be racially pure and know what to eat. I love Mexican food but I can’t eat it anymore.” He left the movement shortly after that.

I wonder how my father’s life has changed with his devotion to this failed businessman from Queens. He chose that over a relationship with his son. It must be hard to be a Trump loyalist, having to believe so many things that are obviously untrue; that COVID-19 is “just the flu,” that the January 6 insurgence was a false flag plot by Antifa, that Trump won the election. The emotional labor it must take to ride the wave of disinformation while everyone around you watches you fall down the rabbit hole must be taxing. Just like the QAnon cult that saw their prophecy fail when the “Storm” failed to materialized to prevent Biden’s swearing in, Trumpists must have to expend a lot of energy to just not look crazy. 

We’re always telling racists that life is better on the other side, with our wide open cuisine and limitless playlist. Maybe an open invitation to Trumpists to break bread at the mosque and talk about Jesus in a black church would work. When you take off your Giuliani-stained blinders, so much great comedy, music, and NPR is there to enjoy. All that Ted Nugent and Scott Baio must get old. There’s so much celebration of life over here. Invite a Proud Boy to a Gay Pride parade. They kinda seem like overlapping circles anyway.

The power of the open hand instead of the clenched fist

I get it. It’s fun to fight. I’m always up for a few rounds with my high school posse, most of whom have become pot-bellied Trumpies. Sarcastic insults worked in high school so let them fly. I have a 50-something classmate who still calls me “Ballsack.” I won’t say he’s been emboldened by Trump’s bullying. This guy was always a prick. The political banter can take on a sport-like quality. Who gets the best jibe and obscure historical fact in last? I have dialed down my social media time (at the request of my wife and humanity), so I get a lot of “He stopped responding. I won.” Cheerio, desktop gladiator.

But the stories of haters leaving their racist lives have a similar element. Most had someone who they were supposed to hate reach out to them. A Muslim, a gay bashing victim, a black man harassed by Klansmen. In The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, former skinhead Frankie Meeink tells the story of a Jewish boss who helped him out of a tight jam and how he never wore another swastika after that act of undeserved act of kindness. I published a book chapter in 2004 after numerous interviews with former Neo-Nazis remarking on the pattern that females in their lives (girlfriends, teachers, daughters) had helped them out by showing the hate that they experienced as females was no different than the hurtful hate their men expressed as racists, opening the door to empathy.

I’m currently reading The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. She describes how both sides of the political divide are pretty good at dehumanizing each other. Internet trolls can lay some pretty hateful rhetoric on their victims, but referring to them as trolls makes them less human as well. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment dehumanized Trump supporters who she accused of dehumanizing others. (We don’t put people in baskets, Hill.) 

Remember when Barack Obama said in 2004 that. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states”? In fact we’re all shades of purple. We’re not so divided as we pretend to be and there’s more that unites us. As a life-long anti-racist, I can have a pretty good conversation with a racist skinhead about our common love of Slayer albums or classic WWF wrestling stars. Then, if we have time, we can get to the deeper stuff. I promise you this; no Nazi has ever stopped being a Nazi because they were told they were wrong just the right amount of times. You’ve got to win hearts and minds. I have to remind myself of this fact when I’m armoring up for a Facebook battle with my Georgia homies.

Being a part of something that matters

The teenage skinheads and the old white men who stormed the Capitol have one thing in common. They all want to belong to something that matters. The skinheads I studied wanted to save American from Jewish communists and the Trump loyalists want to save America from, well, Jewish communists. The both see a country that is about to “cease to exist” because of perceived enemies of “real Americans” and feel the rush of engaging in a great historic cause to the “save the country.”

The left has a similar raison d’etre, as we call others to, “Man the barricades!” and burst into lyrics from Les Miserables and Hamilton. “We’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round!” When I was getting teargassed by the police last summer at the George Floyd protests, I had a feeling that I was a part of something that really mattered, a page in American history. A younger version of me might have seen fit to hurl a projectile at the symbols of oppression. (Older me has several friends who are cops.) We want to feel like we are bigger than just our small one man/women shows. That we can change the world for the better.

The Trump loyalists and Nazi skinheads feel the same way. They see an injustice, however upside down or lie-based it might be, and they want to set it right. “Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again!’ as they sing in Hamilton. What if they were brought into our great cause, the cause that expands the rights millions of Americans, not one that expands the right of one bloated con-artist to become America’s first dictator?

One of the best weapons against hate is an organization called Life After Hate, made up of former extremists, like Frankie Meeink. They use their time in the rabbit hole of racist violence to pull others out and advertise the waste of the dead-end world of hate. There are plenty of former Trumpies, Proud Boys, and QAnon cultists who can serve a similar function. I’ve interviewed militia members and former militia members, and the formers have all said the same thing, “I wish I could meet my younger self and talk some sense into him.” The Life After Hate members are a part of something that matters. Former racists make the best anti-racists, because they understand the humanity of the racist.

Adapting to these times

We’re in strange times. The uncertainty of life makes the comfort of a perfect conspiracy theory seem all that more appealing. It creates a world that is easily understandable. But unfortunately it also creates a world where half of the country thinks the other half is brainwashed, and vice versa. This may be the time to reach out. 

My friend’s mom felt like I was picking on her on Facebook and I responded that I loved her and that her ignorant comments broke my heart. I forgot that calling a white person in the South “ignorant” is essentially calling them “black.” (The phrase “ignorant black” has long been a part of the racist Southern lexicon.) She immediately shut down and ended the conversation. I forgot how to talk to fragile white people. I should have said, “I don’t think YOU are ignorant, but I find some of your racial comments not based in fact.” I apologized for my poor approach hoping to have another opportunity to reach out to her. Nobody said this would be easy. Part of me wonders why I should waste any time with people whose thinking is so entrenched in fear and hate and conspiracy theories and just incorrect information. But another part of me thinks that nothing is ever going to change unless we try. As Axl Rose once sang, “I don’t want a civil war.”

I understand this approach centers the haters and doesn’t address the trauma caused by the hate itself. But one way to allow the victims of hate to heal is to stop the wounding done by the haters.

OK, I’ll call my dad.