Happy Juneteenth! In Defense of Critical Race Theory

June 18, 2021

Note: Sometimes, “idiot” is the only word that applies.

There’s been a lot of right-wing nuts, Trumpists, and QAnon moms freaking out lately about something called Critical Race Theory. Ask these troglodytes what CRT actually is and you’ll get some hastily prepared bullet points from conservative tools, like Candace Owens; “It’s Marxist re-education!” “It’s anti-white racism!” “It’s teaching our children to hate America!” “It’s Barak Obama’s secret plot for a Muslim takeover of America, financed by Chinese communists!” States like Oklahoma and Florida (not known as bastions of anti-racism and/or intelligence) have tried to outlaw CRT from classrooms, causing concerns about the civil liberties of teachers. As we mark Juneteenth, let us stand against the anti-education hordes. (CRT-foe Owens bashed Juneteenth yesterday, tweeting “I’ll be celebrating July 4th and July 4th only. I’m American.”)

As an educator who actually teaches Critical Race Theory, it’s a bit sad seeing the hysteria that seems way too much like last season’s hysteria about Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. I see a lot of inflamed idiots who know absolutely nothing about CRT convinced that some evil cabal is going to destroy “their” country. It’s tiring. If there’s one thing worse than feeling the country has fallen into idiocracy, it’s that it’s fallen into a racist idiocracy.

First of all, Critical Race Theory has been around since the 1970s. All that it is is a set of assumptions, backed up by a massive amounts of data, that the damage done by racism is not by garden variety white supremacists, like Klansmen, Nazi skinheads, and Tucker Carlson. It’s done by institutions that carry the white supremacists ideology that this country was founded on. (Google “Three-fifths Compromise,” cracker!) These institutions include, but are not limited to government, the police, courts, housing, healthcare, education, and the media. That’s it. You’d think that fragile white people would love that. “You’re not racist, the system is!”

But Lordy are these white people (and their well-paid enablers, like Owens) fragile. They believe that telling the truth about race relations in America is unpatriotic. These people don’t want Americans to learn that the ideology of slavery was central to this nation’s founding. These people don’t want Americans to learn about the 120,000 Japanese immigrants, most American citizens, placed in concentration camps by the Roosevelt Administration after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. These people don’t want Americans to know about the forced assimilation of indigenous persons. These people don’t want Americans to know why the average white American lives seven years longer than the average African American. Ignorance is bliss.

The reality is that those that support Critical Race Theory are more true to the promise of America than these woke-ophobics” spazzing out at school board meetings. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, recently said, 

“Critical race theory is not anti- patriotic. In fact it is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th and the 14th and the 15th amendment. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”

The reality is that the legacy of slavery is with us in 2021. It is present in the wealth gap between whites and blacks. It is present in the data from traffic stops to the death penalty. And it is with us in every African-American whose last name is Smith, Jackson, or Washington. It’s not just the mouth breather in a Trump hat, waving a Confederate battle flag, it’s also there in unequal hiring practices, redlining, and the lack of doctors in poor urban areas. That’s why we celebrate Juneteenth. 1865 was not the end of racism in America, it was the beginning of healing. But it’s hard to heal when there is another Jim Crow-fashioned attack coming at us. Just ask black voters in Georgia in 2021.

So what’s behind the kooky white-wing backlash against CRT by moronic reactionaries who don’t even know what it is? It’s more of the same thinly disguised racism. Just like the idiots 60 years ago who were burning rock and roll records because it was “jungle music,” there is a fear among white supremacists in acknowledging the impact and manifestation of racism in America. In 1966, the Ku Klux Klan and radio stations organized “Beatle bonfires” across the South. (And don’t make me make you watch Footloose.) White fear of black bodies has been used to justify everything from slavery to racially objectifying porn. Greater than the fear of black bodies is the fear black truth. That reality holds up a mirror to white faces and fragile whites know they aren’t gonna like what they will see. So smash the mirror.

Therefore it’s not surprising that the anti-CRT mob chants, “CRT is racism!” That’s called projection. It comes from the same place the myths of the black rapist came from – from white men who were raping slave women.

But teachers are smart. They know the old – “Columbus discovered America – Pioneers tamed the west – Lincoln freed the slaves” myths require context. Their classroom is less white these days, so instead of teaching a curriculum that serves to empower white students and marginalize everyone else, teachers will address systemic racism, whether it’s been banned by they racist lawmakers or not.

I know I will. 

Happy Juneteenth, Candace. Let me tell you how free people like you were in 1776. And the white kids will be alright.

If You’re Hiring, Just Be Decent to Applicants, OK?

June 11, 2021

We’re hearing a lot now about how employers can’t find workers to come back to their crappy low wage/no benefit jobs. Shocking, I know. We’re not really hearing how things are still rough for mid-range workers who are trying to return to salaried positions with some health care. I’m one of those people and there is no desperation to hire us. Slave labor, oh sure there are plenty of opportunities! A living wage that supports a family, not so much.

It’s no secret that I left my secure tenured position at Hogwarts when I learned the school had been taken over by trolls and goblins. It was time to try something else after two decades of institutional loyalty. So, as a stay-at-home dad, I focused on my writing and growing my consulting business. But that baby just finished first grade and it’s time to bring more revenue into the household. So scanning indeed.com and writing the cover letters began.

I’ve had some great experiences as a job applicant, including being flown to places like New York City to interview. I know it’s competitive and there are a lot of qualified applicants, some who are willing to work for cheap. I’ve had interviews in boardrooms and on Zoom and I get it if I might not be the right fit. I’m not a cookie cutter applicant. But that’s not what this about. This about one aspect of the hiring process that is a reason so many jobseekers are frustrated, the lack of contact.

I was on a lot of hiring committees at Hogwarts and here’s how it went. When we advertised for a position, we’d get a ton of applicants (usually around 50). We’d end up interviewing three or four people and hopefully having a “successful search.” (You’re hired!) But everyone of those  applicants got a call or email that said thanks for applying but you we won’t be advancing your candidacy. It was just being decent. Putting applications together takes a lot of work. Let those folks know they’re not in the running so they can move on and spend their job-seeking time wisely, instead of sitting by the phone like chumps.

The norm for hiring officers now is to be a dick. This has happened to me numerous times. My first sociology professor was retiring and he encouraged me to apply and step into his shoes. It seemed perfect. I became a fairly renown expert in my field because of the impact he had on me as a college freshman. I even flew in to have lunch with him and discuss how the college had changed so I could best frame my application. I prepared a solid package and began imagining moving my family across the country and becoming a sociology professor at Oxford College of Emory University, where I started in the field. And then I waited.

And I waited. And waited. Finally my wife said I should contact them. I sent an email to the chair of the department to ask about the status of my application and he casually replied that they had hired someone else.  I let him know that the CUSTOM (something sociologists should understand) is to let applicants know when they are no longer being considered. Asshole.

There are jobs I’ve applied to where I know it’s a complete long shot, like the position to be the equity director for Macy’s in NYC (Hey, I love a parade!), but even those should trigger a “Thanks, but no thanks” email. How hard can that be? Can’t you hire a bot to do that job if you’re too lazy to do it yourself?

So much of my work is built around how concepts like racism, sexism, and ableism dehumanize people. They’re not thinking, feeling people, they’re things to be used. While it’s not as historically traumatizing, jobseekers get dehumanized too, just a name on an online application. Just another PDF of a resume taking up data space. Not worthy of a, “Hey, this position is closed but good luck to ya!”

There’s an equity director position at my credit union that applied for. Twice. It’s still being advertised. They must have had a few failed searches, but they never bothered to let me know I was not in the running. Aren’t credit unions supposed to be “more human”? Do I have to be Arnold Horshack? “Oh! Oh! Pick me!”

This isn’t just me complaining. This is something so many jobseekers are going through. Even Toby on This Is Us! You totally think you’ve got an interview for a gig in the bag. You start imagining your new work life. You mentally pay off your credit cards. You buy pants. And then there is the roar of silence. Maybe their email is in the spam folder! Ah, shit.  It makes you appreciate when someone actually takes the time to turn you down, like this email that came while I was writing this paragraph:

“Unfortunately, at this time, we decided to proceed with our selection process with another candidate. The interview committee was impressed with your credentials and experience and it is a decision we didn’t make easily.

We will keep your resume in our talent database, and in case that we have a job opening that better fits your profile, we will make sure to get in touch with you.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” – Email received on June 11, 2021

It’s been a rough year. A ton of people have drained their savings accounts and maxed their credit cards. If you are in charge of hiring, or just on a hiring team, think of the people on the other side of that application process. Please. They are both stressed and hopeful. Don’t just let them dangle. It’s not cool. Mental wellbeing can be fragile, especially in a pandemic. If you don’t want someone on your payroll, have the decency to let them know.

Now back to Indeed.

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming!

June 4, 2021

We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!

There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.

I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.

So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?

Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)

So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.

Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet

As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.

No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.

Cancelling White Fragility: Can Progressives Get an Assist from Madison Avenue?

May 13, 2021

You gotta admit, “Make America Great Again” was a brilliant slogan. Besides doubling as a handy acronym (MAGA!), it was a “politically correct” way of masking the deep racism of Trump supporters who wanted to make America Jim Crow America again. Since Trump left office, Trump supporters in 47 states have introduced or passed voter suppression laws. (Shout out to my ass backwards home state, Georgia!) MAGA fit on hats, t-shirts, and hashtags and immediately conveyed where the supporter stood on transgender bathrooms, racial equity, and the 2020 election. Who came up with this perfect (if fascistic) slogan?

Speaking of “political correctness,” there’s a perfect example of how the left has a language problem. All political correctness is is an attempt to be mindful of the way words and practices marginalize and hurt people in our community. If African-Americans what to be referred to as people of color instead of “colored people,” show them the basic respect of doing it without whining. Those folks have been through some shit! But truth be told, nobody wants to be “corrected.” Ugh. And bothered about getting the he/she thing wrong? A recent study found that nearly 42% of non-binary and transgender youth attempted suicide. By just using a person’s preferred pronoun, you might save a life. Suck it up, snowflake! But there is a cottage industry dedicated to bitching about political correctness as if it was some grand conspiracy to suppress your first amendment right to be an asshole. Your constitutional right to be an asshole remains sacred and defended by both the Supreme Court and the liberal ACLU.

The progressive movement is full of terms, phrases, and slogans that get at the depth of inequity in our society and are intended to start conversations and affect change to transform America into a nation where there truly is liberty and justice for all. But these turns of phrase also trigger right wing trolls and news networks. Over 4 million people watch white supremacist Tucker Carlson each night. If something bothers him, it becomes an instant internet meme spread far and wide by the “proud” boys that want to make America 1950 again. Some of these slogans (and the responses by people who don’t take the time to understand them) include:

Black Lives Matter (“All lives matter!” – Or as my father tried to tell me, “Black Lives Matter means white lives don’t matter.” And yes, he’s a Trumpie.)

Defund the Police (“These anarchists just want criminals to run free!”)

Toxic Masculinity (“Masculinity built this nation!”)

Implicit Bias (“Don’t tell me I’m biased, I have a black cousin!”)

White Privilege (“I’m not privileged. I lived in a car!”)

Micro-aggression (“It’s MICRO! Get over it, libtard! Jeez, you can’t even make a joke anymore.)

And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” line that became adopted by the not-too-bright Trump base as a badge of honor. If Clinton had tried to be less cutesy and just said, “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the cesspool of bigots,” you probably wouldn’t have seen an army of white people with “I’m a bigot!” T-shirts at Trump rallies. (Wait, I may have to rethink that.)

Sometimes the left’s slogans seem as if they were penned by right-wing agent provocateurs. Case in point, ACAB – “All Cops Are Bastards.” Now I understand that provocative slogan is meant to highlight the tendency in the policing world to prevent officers from addressing the systemic racism that has left countless George Floyd’s dead in the streets. (Police unions, I’m looking at you.) But I personally know many police officers, including BIPOC police officers, who desperately want to infuse policing with social justice values. Let’s not forget that several police officers testified for the prosecution in the trial of George Floyd’s uniformed killer. Are all black cops bastards? Are are all women cops bastards? The average woman who sees a cop carting off the man who assaulted her probably doesn’t spray paint ACAB on local businesses.

Anecdote: In 1987, my roommate and I called 911 in Atlanta. Yuppie ninjas had kicked in our apartment door and we’re going to attack us with num-chucks. Our call the the police scared them off but I had to turn off the music we were blasting before the cops arrived; NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” True story.

Perhaps the best example of this is the term, white fragility, which derives from Robin DiAngleo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. The book is simply about the defensiveness that white people express when you alert them to the reality of racism. They say silly things, like “I was raised to be colorblind” (You weren’t) and “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama! (You can). The innovative text is required reading in my Diversity class and has sparked insightful discussions among both white and non-white students. It was a best seller among people who read books and rose back to the top of the charts during the churning summer of 2020.

However, bring up the concept of white fragility to white people who haven’t read the book or have no interest in reading any book about racism, and you get a lot of, well, fragility. For easy reference, watch the June 2020 interview DiAngelo did with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. A seemingly interested Fallon allows DiAngelo to explain that all she is trying to do is ask white people to act with humility and grace and address their own internalized white supremacy. The YouTube video’s 27,000 downvotes sets up the 14,000 comments by fragile white people, accusing DiAngleo of racism herself. “The left: Let’s solve racism with more racism” (John Spinelli) “If ‘self-hatred’ was a person, it’d be Robin DiAngelo” (Jack) “This is what happens when you make a career out of gaslighting.” (SWJobson) Each comment perfectly proves DiAngelo’s central thesis about white fragility. Since “fragility” is feminized in our culture, there’s a macho pushback against it. The term “fragility” literally causes men to become fragile.

The “anti-woke” crowd is pretty good with staying on point. From “Drain the swamp!” to “Stop the steal,” it feels like the right has a high-power Madison Avenue team coining their slogans. What if the left had their own progressive Don Draper, instead of the Antifa Darren Stevens is who pens confrontational taglines on cardboard signs? (How about MCAB? Many Cops Are Bastards! Or what about BLMT? Black Lives Matter, Too!) I mean, whatever intern came up with “Stop Asian Hate” should be run out of the slogan business. “What have you got on your resume? Stop Asian hate. So just who do Asians hate and why should they stop? Come back kid when you’ve got something that makes sense.”

I generally loathe advertising, but we’re in a rut here. It’s time to rebrand white fragility. Maybe “I’m Not A Racist Freak Out Syndrome.” Or how about, “I’m Not A Racist But Those People Scare Me Dysphoria.” I don’t know. I’m a sociologist, not a marketing director. We got close to it with “Pro Choice,” but they beat our pants off with “Pro Life.” There’s gotta be better verbiage that doesn’t drive every Karen and Tucker into a “That’s reverse racism!!” spasm-fest.

The reality is these issues are more complex than a handy slogan could capture. They are nuanced and contextual and all the things that scare superficial thinkers that still think “pro-black” means “anti-white.” In my trainings, we get into the weeds, but it takes me an hour just to define the terms. You can’t get all the bullet points of my training on internalized white supremacy on a street banner let alone a bumpersticker.

So let’s pass the beanie and take up a collection to hire a radical marketing genius to help make America not horrible again.

If you’d like to continue this conversation, you can find me here: www.randyblazak.com

Standing at the Border: Experiencing Xenophobia Through My Wife’s Skin

April 15, 2021

Monday was harder than I thought it would be. We’re on a cross-country family road trip, driving from Atlanta to Portland, via Savannah and New Orleans. Part of our route was designed to skirt the Mexican border to find the spot my wife crossed into America when she was a child. Andi is a brilliant writer, working on a book on the immigrant experience so that stop was crucial.

While it was nice to see the Trump signs gone, whenever you drive through the South, there’s always racial tension. Andi got a death stare from a white woman in a Waffle House in southern Alabama who was probably also triggered by the fact our six-year-old daughter was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. We probably fooled ourselves into thinking we left that bigotry behind when we crossed from Louisiana to the formerly Mexican territory known as “Texas.”

We started Monday in a Red Roof Inn in El Paso, awoken when a white guy drove his Toyota through a wall in the room below ours and then calmly drove away. I’ve made it a habit on my cross country drives to stop by famous crimes scenes that I lecture about. (In 2009, I made an entire Portland to Atlanta to Portland trip based on over 40 crime scenes.) But this wasn’t about me. It was about Andi and how she experienced the day and all the people that didn’t live to experience the day. That’s why our first stop was one of the worst crime scenes of all.

On our way out of El Paso, we stopped at the Walmart where a 21-year old white supremacist went on a shooting spree, killing 23 people and injuring 23 others. After posting an anti-immigrant manifesto that referenced the xenophobic rhetoric of President Trump on 8chan, he drove from Dallas to El Paso with the express purpose of killing Latinx people. Semi-automatic rifle in hand and activated by Trump’s alarm about an “immigrant invasion,” he began firing in the parking lot and then walked into the store, shooting every brown person in his path. It became America’s worst hate crime. It was in 2019 and you probably haven’t heard much about it since it happened. After all they were only brown people.

I walked into the Walmart and asked a police officer (whom I was glad to see) if there was a memorial to the victims of that day. She said it wasn’t much of a memorial, but it was on the far side of the parking lot, facing I-10. Andi, Cozy, and I walked over to what was a large metal candle, with a plaque in English and Spanish. It was stark but effective and brought Andi to tears. The names of the victims were the names of her people, including one who shared a name with her father who passed away a few weeks ago. She couldn’t go into the store itself because it would be filled with people who looked like her, like the people who were killed that day. It was a superstore-sized reminder of the hatred of hispanic people. And Walmart still sells guns.

I could feel the pain in Andi’s body and, as a white person, all I could do is say I was sorry for the hate and ignorance of white people and pledged to do this work on bias crimes with more fervor.

Then we hit the road for New Mexico and got off I-10 in Arizona to take backroads to Douglas, which is across the border from Agua Prieta, the place Andi crossed from in 1998. As soon as we got off the highway, we began to see Border Patrol trucks, La Migra, on the hunt. There was even a lonely National Guardsman, shirt on his head to protect himself from the sun, leaning against a vehicle holding up a giant surveillance camera. The news had just come in that President Biden was working with the Mexican government to “strengthen” border security. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Andi crossed in the middle of the night so this daytime view gave her another perspective of the harsh nature of the land she walked across as an 8-year-old. It also began to trigger memories of sage brush branches cutting her skin. I could see her body change as we got closer to the border, the hard journey coming back to her. We reflected on the thousands of people who died trying to reach a better life, 7,000 since since Andi crossed. (2020 being the worst year on record for migrant deaths, but that’s what Trump and his people wanted.)

Douglas is a quaint little town that appears out of the vast desert, full of franchised America, like McDonalds and, of course, Walmart, and completely populated by Latino-Americans who probably long for the days when the open border was a reality and nobody (including white people thousands of miles away) cared about it. We stopped by a playground so Cozy could stretch her legs. The wall with Mexico was a hundred feet away. I just watched Andi smell the air and look at the faces of the people living their life in a border town.

After picking up some tacos, we headed west to try to find the exact spot where my wife entered the country. We found a road off of Highway 80 called W. Paul Spur Road that took us to a dirt road simply called Border Road. As we approached the border a massive wall emerged. The Trump wall. We stopped on the side of the road to have our tacos and let Andi walk in the brush that she made her way through when she was a child. I took a video of Cozy standing in the wind has her mother felt a flood of emotions. She became nervous about being there as Border Patrol helicopters and planes flew over our heads. Her first night in that place she and her group were captured by the Border Patrol, detained and taken back across the border. She was unsure of going any farther, but I urged her to make it to that point, the eternal return.

We drove all the way to the newly constructed wall, with it’s erection date written on it, 10-10-20. Trump’s last act of anti-immigrant violence, less than a month before election day. How many more would die because of that wall? Slow painful deaths. Children dying without water, in the cold desert night. Parents who just want to work and find a better future for their families, alone, to become bones in the sand. I watched Andi reach through the slats in the wall to the Mexican side, touching the air of her home. She placed a picture on herself on the other side. On the back of it she had written, “Yo crucé” (I crossed). “I just want to give hope to someone like me,” she said.

We stood at the wall for a while, taking it in, taking pictures, including one of Andi and Cozy that seemed to bookmark the night Andi and her mother crossed. The weight of it all was on her. The weight of all those who died alone in the desert and the weight of a hateful nation that chanted “build a wall.” I thought about all the amazing people who would not be adding to American culture because of that wall or because they died trying to make it to their American dream. Andi just said, “If this had been here then, I probably wouldn’t be here now.”

The Border Patrol helicopter must have become suspicious that we were going to smuggle some migrants in our Prius and became more present, so we put the border wall in the review mirror. About 500 miles later we were in Las Vegas, where the water dances in fountains and the deaths on the border and in El Paso Walmarts are never thought of. But we will think of them and more.

Witnessing the Witnesses of the Murder of George Floyd: Trauma at the Trial of Derek Chauvin

March 30, 2021

I’m watching the second day of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin and I want to throw up. Chauvin is the 44-year-old former Minneapolis police officer who is on trial for the murder George Floyd on May 25th of last year. I want to throw up because of the excruciating videos of Chauvin torturing Floyd to death. I want to throw up because of the young people who witnessed the police officer kill a man in broad daylight. I want to throw up watching Chauvin’s attorney trying to discredit the witnesses as “angry blacks.” And I want to throw up because there are already countless white people on social media trying to blame the murder of George Floyd on George Floyd.

Police kill roughly a thousand people a year, and, on average, about 44 police officers are convicted of anything in those killings, usually on a charge less than murder. That’s why this trial carries so much weight. Floyd wasn’t fighting or fleeing. He was on the ground, handcuffed with Chauvin’s knee on his neck for nine minutes, while he called out for his children and his dead mother and repeatedly told police “I can’t breathe!” There is no ambiguity. No “maybe he had a gun.” No implicit bias. There was only explicit cruelty. It was the revelation of that cruelty, caught on video because of the number of witnesses, that reignited the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.

Those videos traumatized every person of color who understands from first and secondhand experience the reality of race in America. Their experience with law enforcement is deeply different than the experience that white people like me have with law enforcement. I see the police as my protector. They have learned to see the police as their potential executioner. The murder of George Floyd unlocked the very real generational trauma that is rooted in the dehumanization of black people initiated in centuries of chattel slavery. I witnessed this in the weeks following Floyd’s killing, seeing black men on TV in rarely shared tears, wondering aloud when they would be seen as human beings in America.

Day Two of the trial has featured a number of prosecution witnesses who, for various reasons, were in front of Cup Foods on Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street that spring day. Most were underage at the time. One was a teenager named Darnella Frazier, who was there with her 9-year-old cousin. This young women was sharp enough to pull out her phone and record what was happening. In tearful testimony, she reported that she saw in the dying face of this black man, all the black men in her life. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad. I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles. Because they are all Black … I look at that and I look at how that could have been one of them.” She begged the police to help him instead of killing him. Her young cousin testified that Chauvin didn’t remove his knee from the already dead Floyd until the paramedics pulled him off.

Frazier then testified to the guilt she experienced for not doing more. “It’s been nights I stay up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life. But it’s not what I should have done,” she said, looking at Chauvin, who was writing on a yellow legal pad. “It’s what he should have done.”

Similar testimony from other young people at the scene told a similar story. They begged police to help Floyd has he faded from consciousness. That’s what the police are supposed to do. Help. They detailed, often pausing to weep or collect themselves, how the life was slowly choked out of George Floyd. They were just feet from him as his life and urine were squeezed out on to Chicago Avenue. To the four police officers, including Chauvin, it was just another day on the job, but for the witnesses, the moment is frozen in amber.

Each witness, including the off-duty firefighter who crossed the chaos, provide accounts that were devastatingly powerful. Maybe none more than bystander Donald Williams, a mixed martial arts fighter who repeatedly begged the police to take the pressure off of Floyd’s neck and render aid. Williams, there on the sidewalk in his Northside Boxing Club sweatshirt, exercised great restraint while telling Chauvin that he was enjoying the torture. He called 911 because he believed he had witnessed a murder. “I called the police on the police,” he testified.

Chauvin’s defense attorney tried to characterize him as an angry black man, perhaps threatening the officers on the scene. He calmly answered the cross examination. “You can’t paint me as angry. I was in a position where I had to be controlled, controlled professionalism.” If Chauvin’s defense was that a “riot” or an angry crowd of bystanders caused the police to forget that they’re not supposed to murder people, it fell apart at that moment. 

I don’t know what will happen after today. If history is any guide, Chauvin will be found not guilty on a technicality or found guilty of a lesser charge, like not filing some required paperwork. But I do know three things.

First, is that the the United States Constitution guarantees due process rights of anyone accused of a crime. It is a founding principle of our American democracy and distinguishes us from the world’s tyrannies. The right is guaranteed to anyone within the boundaries of our nation, including undocumented immigrants and people with previous criminal histories. Due process is afforded to those accused of white collar crimes and street crimes, and it doesn’t matter if you are a “menace to society,” as one of my “I’m not racist” white Facebook friends described George Floyd in attempt to blame him for his own murder.

The police are not judge, jury, and executioner. That’s common in dictatorships. Derek Chauvin did not have the right to execute George Floyd for “his actions and lifelong poor decisions,” as another white Facebook poster tried to rationalize. We have a justice system and it’s supposed to be blind. Do police have the right execute you for jaywalking (Michael Brown), selling loose cigarettes (Eric Garner), or allegedly passing a fake bill (George Floyd)? Black America has an answer to that question.

The second thing I know is that the 2020 murder of George Floyd woke a lot of people up to the very deep reality of black trauma in America. The weight of the dehumanization of slavery foist upon African-origined people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. It morphed into Jim Crow and then institutional racism that explains the wealth gaps and death gaps and the incarceration gaps that disadvantage African-Americans in the twenty-first century. George Floyd was every black person and, in his name, Americans flooded the streets. Americans also read books about racism and found ways to respond to the empty bleat that “all lives matter.”

But the trauma experienced by the young witnesses who testified today is even deeper. Like witnesses to a lynching, these people, including the children who were standing on the corner of Chicago and 38th, watched a group of white police officers (and an Asian-American cop who failed to intervene) kill a black man. Their trauma will last a lifetime. Their deeply held beliefs about police, white people, and the value of black life will be shaped for a lifetime. Even MMA fighter Donald Williams was in tears as he testified, as was off-duty white firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, who witnessed the crime.

The third thing I know is that Darnella Frazier should not feel guilty for not doing more. Her recording of George Floyd’s murder went viral and sparked a massive civil rights movement that transformed America in the summer of 2020. A recent study from Northwestern University found that cities that had sustained Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 experienced a 20% decrease in killings by police. Because of what she did on May 25th, Darnella Frazier saved countless lives.

And I will add one more thing I know. If Derek Chauvin is not found guilty of the murder of George Floyd, Americans will be right to return to the streets to express their frustration over this country’s inability to end the reality that there are two justice systems in America, one for white people and one for everyone else. You can work to heal trauma or heap more pain upon the open wound. If you think more wounding will silence black pain, you don’t understand the mighty resilience of a people who have had it with centuries of this trauma. America is on trial.

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it?

March 24, 2021

I got vaccinated about a week ago and I don’t know if I should shout if from the rooftops or keep it on the down low. Never has getting a shot more been more fraught with social complexity. As of today, 127 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 14% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Is everyone who is vaxed as vexed as I am about how to respond? Let’s weigh this out.

On the one side, after a year of living in fear, according to the scientists, I am fully protected from the coronavirus and, apparently, the more infectious variants.

On the other side, those scientists can’t tell me if I can still pass COVID on to others.

On the one side, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer hosts the virus has, slowing the pandemic down to something that starts to look like the mythical herd immunity.

On the other side, it’s really clear that the social inequities that marked higher infection and death rates for some populations are all reflected in who has access to the vaccine. My white privilege pays off in white life expectancy.

On the one side, I can stand as defender of science and encourage other intelligent people to get their shots as soon as possible.

On the other side, I’m aware there are a large number of idiots, including at least 50% of Trump voters, who said they won’t get the vaccine because they think COVID is a hoax. And those un-immunized idiots will birth mutant variants and put immunocompromised people (2.7% of Americans) at risk of infection and death.  (Dear idiots, Trump has been vaccinated and has said you should be, too.)

On one side, I don’t have to panic if I actually use a pen from the “dirty pen” holder when I’m signing the check at the coffee shop.

On the other side, these vaccines came out awfully fast. As a scientist, I’m bothered when corners are cut. And am I going to need another booster shot in a year? And when can my kid get vaccinated? And any info about long-term side effects? And…

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on sunny Saturday afternoon at the Portland Airport Economy Parking Lot. It was an impressive set up, like driving into Disneyland, with hundreds of volunteers donating their time to help put a dent in this pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people on the planet (most here in the dirty USA). My first thought was about how people who didn’t have cars were going to get their shot in this very car-centric vaccination effort. (I didn’t even have to get out of the RAV-4.) Actually, my first thought was how lucky I was to get a spot so soon. K-12 educators are just getting vaccinated now. I think college educators like me are scheduled later, somewhere between Jiffly Lube workers and TikTok dancers.

A friend in the military had a vaccine opening and was already full of Moderna, so he offered it to me. I passed up on one of these “jump the queue” openings a month ago because I knew there were more deserving recipients. But, after hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci say, “If you have a chance to get a shot, get the shot,” I decided to play my educator-parent of a young child-I’m probably older than you and therefore at risk-card. This decision was made easier by the fact that there are reports that large numbers of vaccines have gone unused because of a disjoint in the demand and supply chain.

But it’s been clear that there is massive inequities in this vaccine rollout. African-Americans, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, are only 8% of those who have received a vaccine, according to the CDC. Since most vaccine scheduling is done online, the technological divide is hitting the offline hard. This includes the elderly, poor people, people with physical and mental disabilities, the unhoused, and those that live in rural areas with limited internet access. Those low vaccination rates will translate into higher infection and death rates.

I thought about this as I was on the wild ride of my “one and done” Johnson & Johnson poke. Eight hours after my shot, I was hit by the Corona Express, a quick trip into the “this what you get” black hole of side effects. I had the chills so bad I thought the teeth were going to bounce out my head. It all passed later the following day, and I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof. I had a great support system to hold my hand. The rumors of heavy side effects might make some folks who live a lone a little more vaccine hesitant. I know I was lucky, but it didn’t feel like it while I was sweating bullets.

I lecture a lot about privilege and how privilege should engage a sense of responsibility, not guilt. But there is a part of me that feels guilty that I got the vaccine when I know there are more deserving people who don’t have a friend who can put them on the immunization guest list. But maybe my shame should be reserved for the system that creates so many institutional injustices that play out in human suffering. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in America, the best predictor of your life expectancy is the zip code you live in. I’m ashamed of that.

Ultimately, we’re all taking it on faith that the mass vaccination experiment will solve this new health problem. It’s already done a good job of adding to an old one.

Envisioning Our Renaissance at Home: Life After the Pandemic

March 8, 2021

A year ago, we were in a panic. I remember walking into the grocery store on February 29th, and seeing every roll of toilet paper gone. (I bought a 6-pack of Corona and went home.) Now, after over half a million deaths in America, the light is at the end of the tunnel. Things are beginning to open, like a late-winter purple crocus. Thirty million Americans have already been vaccinated. (I’m scheduled for my Pfizer vaccine on Saturday!) Schools are making plans to reopen and restaurants are starting to seat diners. The insanity of March 2020 is being answered by the hopefulness of March 2021. There are still incredibly high rates of infection (Don’t you dare take off that mask!), but the future looks bright.

I’ve done several trainings on racial and ethnic inequities related to the COVID-19 infection and death rates (and now immunization access) over the past year. I always try to balance all the doom and gloom with a “silver lining” ending about the power of resistance and resilience. Looking back at history, the explosion of cultural creation that began in the Renaissance of the 15th century was a life-affirming response to the “black death” of the 14th century’s bubonic plague pandemic. The “Roaring Twenties” were a celebratory pivot from World War 1 and the influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly 100 million people a century ago. Maybe this pandemic will give us a new Renaissance, I would offer my bummed-out audiences.

So let me throw an idea into our grand re-opening.

We’ve survived this year-long pandemic in various ways. Mainly retreating from bars, clubs, restaurants, block parties, and family celebrations, as we socially distanced from each other. We’ve retreated into our phones (Tik-Tok as therapy?) and endless binges on the small screen. (I’ve seen every iteration of 90 Day Fiancé and am now bingeing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.) We’ve become anti-social. The majority of my college students mute their videos during our Zoom classes. I’m not sure if they are human beings or Russian bots. Can I get a human interaction??? So the response to this year of isolation is to become SUPER SOCIAL.

People of America, let me reintroduce the once popular pastime known as home entertainment.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my parents were always going to parties. My brother and I were either stuck with a babysitter, or peaking under the bedroom door wondering who all the laughing people in our house were. My mom hosted bridge parties, my dad hosted poker parties. My parents belonged to a gourmet dinner club and, when it was their turn, cooked and decorated the house for disco-era foodies. I grew up thinking every weekend was a house party. Complete with a wet bar. To this day when I hear Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass my mouth waters for leftover hors d’oeuvres.

What did the swinging parents of the Seventies have that we don’t?

Well, for starters, they didn’t have social media sucking their eyeballs in an endless doom scroll. They also had better wages that allowed them to keep the wet bar stocked. But post-pandemic, we have a greater desire to be in a living room together, reading faces sans masks. (Did Ms. McGillicuddy just lick her lips while she handed me that Gin Rickey?) If there ever was a generation that was desperate to sit on a sectional couch and complain about kids and parents and government, it’s Generation Zoom.

So let’s bring it all back. Card games, Monopoly, charades, dinner parties, album listening sessions, jigsaw puzzles, Twister, fancy cocktails, inappropriate party games. All of it. Except the misogyny. We can leave that in the Seventies. (No key parties!) If the women want to smoke cigars in the backyard and complain about how their men are crappy at laundry while the men clean up the spilled Chex Mix, let ‘em. The kids can be locked in the bedrooms, watching the Wizard of Oz (or Ozark), while the parents crack open another bottle of pinot in the kitchen.

We’ll be back in the clubs and bars, seeing bands and getting Ubers home soon enough. But let’s not go back to normal. Normal sucked, too, if you remember. I don’t want 2019. Nobody wants 2019. If it’s Saturday evening, either you are going to somebody’s home for dinner, or you’re having somebody over for dinner. And then maybe an apéritif (Look up that word, loser) and a nice game of Parcheesi or even Cards Against Humanity. We need this! We need to sit across from each other, at a card table, and reconnect.

Great things can come from this. During the Enlightenment, salons became all the rage in Paris. People turned their living spaces into community meeting places, called salons. In apartments and front rooms, people would gather to discuss art, politics, and the meaning of existence in a post-Dark Ages Europe. German sociologist Georg Simmel invented the field of small group dynamics by observing interactions of salon participants. The next generation of grand ideas is not going to come from hunched-over trolls, sliding though endless posts on Instagram. It’s going to come from the collision of ideas that occur during a game of rummy, fueled by Whiskey Sours.

During the quarantine, we decided to take on a kitchen remodel in our 1909 Portland Craftsman home (with a very out-of-date 1960s kitchen). We want to turn our home into a welcoming place where people can bring a bottle of wine and stay as late as they want. No TV, we’re adding another couch to the living room for relaxed conversations. I’m going to re-learn how to play poker. (Seventh grade was a long time ago.) We want to start a circle of friends who feel comfortable inviting each over to their homes, even if it’s for a cocktail before heading out to the movies.  (Remember going to the movies? And friends?) Enough take out. Let’s cook in! And invite the neighbors! Home entertaining could be the great salve we’ve secretly craved. You’ve spent a year cleaning your place, for godssake.

Our culture is so divided right now. Let’s get to know each other again. Let our homes become safe spaces to argue and discuss and figure out what our Roaring Twenties should look like. I want you to dress for the occasion. I’ll bring the deviled eggs. Cheers!

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 Black 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