“Colorblind” White People and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

January 16, 2023

I’m not old enough to remember how badly white people hated Martin Luther King, Jr. during his lifetime. How they protested, en masse, his calls for racial integration and an end to Jim Crow. How they called him a communist and a terrorists. How they jailed him and threatened the life of he and his family on a daily basis. I was four years old that day in April when a white person put a bullet in his face on a Memphis hotel balcony. I only learned about that later in my white-authored schoolbooks.

But I am old enough to remember how white people fought tooth and nail to stop Dr. King’s a birthday being made a federal holiday. I was 19 when Ronald Reagan, who spent much of his presidency undoing the civil rights legislation that King fought for, bit his tongue and signed the holiday into law (after 90 white congressmen and 22 white senators voted against it). In my Georgia town, white people began calling the holiday, “Martin Luther Coon Day.”

So I’m leery of how so many white people now embrace Dr. King while ignoring his core messages. As a kid from a southern Klan town, I’m the last person to say that white people’s hearts cannot be changed. I’ve seen the most vicious racists transform into the most dedicated anti-racist activists. And I’ve seen that more than once. But if feels like every MLK Day we get the sanitized version of the black radical who white America despised.

The perfect example is the focus on one passage in King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that you will hear repeated on Fox News every January.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Taken out of context this sentence to gets white people off the hook. “Hey, I’ll just judge black people by the content of their character and we can be done with this whole race thing.” This lame assertion denies some very important facts.

  1. Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as pretty much everything he said, makes the exact opposite case. He was saying we will never get to the colorblind world UNTIL we deal with the engrained problems of structural and cultural racism. “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society,” King later wrote. He had a dream of how things could be but we weren’t there in 1963 and we’re still not there in 2023. We have to do the work first. And the work is hard and the push back against the work is mighty. It’s just not from powerful white nationalists like Donald Trump. The pushback is felt in every white person that has ever said, “I’m not a racist, but…”
  2. “I was raised not to see color” is a lie. We live in a white supremacist society that sees white as “good” and “normal” and sees black as “bad” and “other.” We internalize these message throughout our entire lives. All of us internalize white supremacy. Numerous studies have shown that black kindergartners have already learned to value whiteness over blackness. Even if you are not a rabid Klansman, we know these messages about race are baked into your subconscious as implicit bias. Even the most woke-ass liberal notices the black guy standing by their car. Research shows again and again that implicit bias is a factor in why black and brown kids are disciplined more by teachers and why people of color are more likely to be shot by police. So when a white person says they are “colorblind,” they might think they are but they most definitely are not. We are trained to see color from the get-go.
  3. Black and brown people do not have the privilege of being colorblind. Seeing color is a matter of survival. If I’m an African-American man and I walk into a bank full of white people, I may have to adjust my behavior, appearance, and demeanor so the white people a) don’t think I’m there to rob the place, and b) maybe give me the same service that white people get. I had a black student who always wore a suit and tie to class everyday and when I commented on his dapper style he said, “I just got tired of everyone assuming I was here on an athletic scholarship.”
  4. The content of one’s character is most certainly shaped one’s environment and upbringing. If I’m facing the daily sledgehammer of racism and oppression, that’s gonna play a role in my character. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the seminal text, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, refers to the “ever present anger” black people experience because of the constant othering. If you are going to judge someone by their character, you better understand the forces that helped create it.

In Martin King’s famous “I Have Dream” speech, in a section rarely quoted by contemporary white people, he says:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.

Last year there were over a thousand people killed by the police. African-Americans, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population represented 27 percent of those who were killed. George Floyd and every black police victim that has followed speak to the unspeakable horrors that persist. So why should those clamoring for basic human rights be satisfied?

Simplified history-telling has often portrayed white people as facing a perilous question sixty years ago; Either go with the kinder assimilationist rhetoric of Reverend King or face the revolutionary rage of Minister Malcolm X. King or X was a false choice. Underlying MLK’s rainbow vision was a fairly radical call for a power shift in America. The “I Have a Dream” line, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” was as much about the tables in the backrooms of congress and corporations as it was the tables in diners. Toward the end of his life, King’s message was much more explicitly class-based and anti-war (which must’ve made J.Edgar Hoover’s blood boil).

The white cherry-picking of MLK sentences from long, complex speeches and essays and the casting him as a “good negro” (in contrast to all the “bad” ones) erases the core message of King’s life. Yeah, there as been a little progress, but we ain’t there yet. We still have to explain to white people why black lives matter, because the facts on the table show they still don’t. Until there is fundamental structural change and black people, and other marginalized folks, have the EXACT same access to economic, political, and cultural power, we can dream about it, but we ain’t there yet.

So share the dream. It’s a good one. But action is required. That’s what Martin asked of us.

Foreshadowing Fascism: The Spike in Anti-Semitism is Bigger than Trump and Kanye

December 7, 2022

Every December 7th, we remember the 1941 attack on Japan by imperialist Japan. December 7th, 1941 is also the date that Hitler made his “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) decree, the order that instructed the Gestapo to round up all the enemies of Nazism in the lands controlled by Berlin, and send them to concentration camps. Sadly, many of those who supported Hitler’s anti-Semitic vision were political activists in the United States. That included aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, spokesperson of the America First Committee, founded in 1940. Four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States, declaring that Franklin Roosevelt was a spawn of the “eternal Jew.”

It’s important to remember that the Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers. It began with anti-Semitic hate speech. The fact that former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump gleefully dines with anti-Semites like Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, tells Proud Boys to stand by, refers to the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville as “fine people,” and has routinely retweeted disinformation from white supremacist accounts should exclude him from any political credibility whatsoever. Instead, it places him in the center of right-wing politics that has always had its right foot in the mud of anti-Semitism. Blaming the Jews isn’t back. It never went away. It’s now just got a media platform so expansive it would make Father Coughlin drool on his frock.

First, let’s dispense with a crucial piece of bullcrap. Saying, “I can’t be anti-Semitic, I support Israel!” is like saying, “I can’t be racist, I support the Lakers!” Support for Israel is not the same as support for Jewish people (including Jews who are critical of the state of Israel). Evangelicals see Jews as “unsaved people,” who are just getting the Holy Land ready for the return of Jesus. MAGA support for Israel is inherently anti-Semitic. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the MAGA subculture has plenty of neo-Nazis, like Nick Fuentes, it its ranks.

This isn’t about Trump and “Ye.” There has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes and incidents over the last few years. The ADL reported that 2021 was the highest year on record for anti-Semitic incidents and 2022 looks like it could end up worse. Oregon has already logged 257 bias crimes and incidents with Jewish victims this year. Just last month, New York City saw a 125% increase in hate attacks targeting Jews over the previous November. Trump and Kanye just make it more acceptable for those people to come out of the shadows.

While the Jewish people have a long history of oppression, the Adolph Hitler/Kanye West version of anti-Semitism has a fairly recent starting point. The 1789 French Revolution not only brought the promise of democracy to Europe, and the end of the divine right of kings, it emancipated French Jews, making them full French citizens. So when the defenders of church and monarchy needed a convenient scapegoat to blame the revolutionary chaos on, the “anti-Christian” Jews were an easy target. Aside from the fact that European Jews had a fairly good reason to not be fans of the Catholic Church, Jewish participation in the French Revolution was fairly minimal. And yet a new myth was born; the pro-democracy/anti-church rule movements around the globe were the work of secret cabal of Jewish rabbis. The puppet masters; controllers of banks, media outlet, competing political parties, and all things liberal.

This new belief that Jews “control the world” spread like wildfire as the old empires began to crumble. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the bizarre conspiracy theory was codified in a supposedly real (but fully fabricated) document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was used to blame the Russian Revolution on Jews and used by Henry Ford to blame unionization efforts on the “international Jew” (the title of a series of booklets Ford wrote in the 1920s). The conspiracy theory became equally popular among jihadists and Neo-Nazis into the twenty-first century. We are almost a quarter of the way through the century and Trump acolyte Kanye West’s proclamation that “I like Hitler” on disgraced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show barely sparks a response from the Learned Elders of the Republican Party. That should make the world say, collectively, we’ve seen this movie before.

Volumes have been written on how the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump map on to other nations’ slide into fascist rule. American democracy is not guaranteed and Trump’s recent claim that the U.S. Constitution should be “terminated” is straight-up Germany 1933. All we need is an economic collapse to send the “stable middle” into a panicked blame-game and a charismatic figure to convince them that all their problems are because of George Soros/drag queens/woke bankers/deep state agents and we’ve got pogroms in the streets of America; the Proud Boys and their ilk, who have been on “standby,” leading the charge to “make America great again.”

This might seem like a lot of hysteria but let me conclude with two thoughts. Every single Jewish person has a deep personal connection to the violence of anti-Semitism. Every news story about a synagogue covered in swastika graffiti, or about Jewish people attacked just walking down the street, or another “crazy” claim about Jews by an popstar who has 16 million followers on Instagram is a reminder of the long history in the belief that the complete annihilation of the Jewish people is a good thing that is both dreamed about and acted upon. The trauma of living in that world must be immense and yet the Jewish people continue to contribute to a world that imagines destroying them.

Finally, as I’ve written, earlier this year, I spent a snowy April day at the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps in Poland. After walking though the gates that still read, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work sets you free), I suffered my first panic attack, realizing that it was all very real. A population, motivated by fear, was willing to commit mass genocide. Children, like my daughter, were ripped from their parents arms and thrown into the fire pits of Birkenau. Why? Because they were “dirty Jews.” I stood on that spot and wept. Because, unlike what certain guests at Mar-a-Lago believe, the Holocaust happened. And, like certain guests at Mar-a-Lago hope, it could happen again.

We must stand together against this insanity or it will be our children who will be thrown into the fire pits.

Represent! Why We Need a Black Woman on the Supreme Court

January 30, 2022

There’s a classic experiment in the 1940s that unmasked the true depth of racism in America. Two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, gave black children in New York City four baby dolls, two with dark skin and two with light skin. Then the researchers asked the kids to pick the “good” dolls and the “bad” dolls. The black children generally saw the white dolls as good and black dolls as bad. The experiment was later used to convince the Supreme Court to hear the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1951.

The black doll experiment has been repeated numerous times, well into the 21st century, and still results in gut-wrenching displays of the internalized white supremacy in black children. (Just watch a few on YouTube.) The demonstration has an added value as our attention returns to the Supreme Court and the issue of race, and the coming vacancy of Justice Stephen Breyer. President Biden has said he would nominate a black women to the bench. That means something to the little black girls in Harlem that picked the white doll.

Racism takes many forms. We easily associate it with cross-burning Klansmen and “Whites Only” signs from the Jim Crow days. But it can be a slight as a clutched purse when a black man steps on an elevator, or as insidious as predatory lending from banks who prey on black and brown people. We see it in the causal commentary about “Mexican immigrants” and the bloody tally as hate crimes rise.

But it is also present in absence. For every black boy who has never seen a male teacher who looked like him, or for every Asian girl who as never seen an Asian woman in the media portrayed as anything other than “exotic,” representation is a game changer. We white people never notice this because, quite literally, there are people who look like this in every filed we can imagine. A white fish doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out of the damn water.

That gets coded as “white is normal,” and every other race is the exception. You don’t have to say, “white person.”  You can just say “person,” because their whiteness is assumed (as is their maleness). In the nearly 233 years of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s pretty much been a nonstop sea of white people. That changed in 1967, when President Johnson swore in Thurgood Marshall, who was on the bench until 1991, when he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas and his Pepsi can. Thomas, hasn’t exactly been a civil rights lion, not even offering an opinion until the 2003 Virginia v. Black cross-burning case.

But race is not gender and blackness is not femaleness. Representation is an intersectional matter. Just like there are no actual afro-Caribbeans in Lin-Manuel’s film, In the Heights, (a musical about an afro-Caribbean neighborhood in New York), there have been no black women on the high court. While you might find plenty of black female judges in local courtrooms, 80% of federal judges are white and black women magistrates make up a tiny sliver of the remaining 20%. The addition of a black woman would not only be meaningful to those little black girls (and the thousands of black female attorneys), but it would make a difference to the non-black people, too.

The subtle prejudice of absence is in the lack of affirmation. People thought blacks could never be faster than whites, until Jesse Owens was. People thought a black man could never win the presidency, until Barak Obama did. People thought that a black person could never become a billionaire, until BET founder Robert L. Johnson made it. The Supreme Court is the brain trust of our democracy. The absence of black women sends a subtle message about they capabilities.

The white supremacists over at Fox News are already having a field day, playing the “reverse racism” card to their elderly white audience. The rhetoric goes like this; If Biden picks a black woman for the court, he’s screwing a capable white man out of a job. I wonder how many capable black women have been screwed out that job so a white person and/or a man could be hired. But the white snowflakes are apoplectic over the thought that a black women might have an informed opinion on constitutional matters more rooted in reality than something they heard spewed by Tucker Carlson, Joe Rogan, Ted Cruz or any of the other white men who, in the words of James Brown, are talking loud and saying nothing.

As we head into Black History Month we can underestimate the power of firsts. The first black airline pilot (Marlon Green, 1964). The first black pole vaulter to medal at the Olympics (LoJo Johnson, 2000). The first black woman in space (Mae Jamison, 1992). Second and thirds are equally important. Like the court was made up of all white men from 1789 to 1967, there may be a future court where all nine justices are black women. Until then, whoever President Biden picks, will be a reminder to those little black girls to pick the doll that looks like them.

How to not be an anti-racist asshole: Mindfulness and Racial Progress

December 21, 2021

There are a lot of well-meaning people who’s well-meaning actions just make things worse. I’ve  certainly been one of those people. Portland is filled with self-proclaimed anti-racists who believe that by smashing windows and setting trashcans on fire, they are somehow making black lives matter. Have they bothered even asking any of these black lives if this is a good strategy? The people of color that I’ve talked to see is it as purely white performance. Now working on policies that help people of color buy homes and operate local businesses, that helps. A lot.

My challenge to anti-racist activists, of which I am one, is to take a break from chasing down neo-Nazis and Proud Boys, and take a look in the mirror. Until we start on the long process to undo our own internalized white supremacy, we will be blind to the racial trauma we cause while we’re chanting “Black lives matter!” There is a simple sociological formula that goes like this:

Racist socialization

Internalized white supremacy

Implicit bias

Micro-aggression

= Trauma

In 2021, still, we all learn various versions of “white is normal and better” lessons. That seeps into our subconscious where it lives as implicit bias and then emerges as micro-aggresions (a clutched purse, an off-handed comment, a joke that shouldn’t have been told). And that small thing lands as another wounding message to people of color that they are still not full members in this society. And the endless barrage of those “micro-assaults” become cumulative trauma. And that’s why BIPOC folks were in the streets in 2020, because enough was enough.

As I’ve written in this blog, 2021 has provided a great opportunity to move inwards from the barricades as Delta, and now Omicron, send us back into our shelters. Mindfulness and meditation give us strategies to interrupt our hard-learned tendencies to act in racist ways, even while we lecture others against their racism. I had a great week training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion here and Portland and consumed Mindful of Race by Ruth King. Both had huge impacts on how I move through the world as a white person.

King, a Buddhist woman of color, offers useful strategies to manage those situations that can cause racial distress. It could be finding yourself in an uncomfortable conversation with a Trump-loving uncle who wants to make America white again, or, on the other side, those white fragility moments when a person of color is taking apart your liberalness as just a vacant act of wokeness. One of her mindfulness strategies, that goes by the acronym “RAIN,” has been helpful for me in not only navigating my racial interactions, but also being more present in my relationship with my wife. It works like this:

The “R” stands for recognize. A big part mindfulness is paying attention to our emotional states as things to be observed. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, where is it? Is it a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach or an angry tension in the middle of your forehead. Recognize it. “There’s that feeling. Hello again. I see you there.”

A is for allow. Buddhists teach us that everything is temporary, especially our emotions. Instead of letting them control us, let them float past, like a cloud. Accepting impermanence (“anitya” in Sanskrit) allows us to not, as U2 once perfectly sang, get stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. So in those racially tense moments, we can see it and then remind ourselves that they will be in the rearview mirror shortly, so hold off on any emotionally driven impulses (including micro-aggressions).

I is for Investigate. Mindfulness teaches us to be curious about our thoughts. Where did this discomfort come from? Could it be projection, or due to a lack of true reflection? Could it be rooted in mis-learned lessons from our childhood? Maybe it’s those implicit biases we all hold.

And finally, the “N” is for nurture. What do you need right now to pass through this moment without adding to the racial harm? And what do others need to address their harm? It could be developing a strategy to address a problematic policy or person, or it could be a hug and a short walk around the block to calm down.

At the root of King’s teaching is kindness. Kindness to ourselves and to those traumatized by racism, and, yes, kindness to those who perpetrate racism in the world. They, like us and as us, are products of this racist society and capable of becoming forces for racial healing themselves. The Buddhist principles of racial mindfulness might be a tough sell to a black clad 20-year-old who thinks vandalizing a police station somehow helps black people, but that 20-year-old has the capacity for personal transformation and the ability to participate in stopping the harm so there can be true racial healing.

The Black Strawman: 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.

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 as 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.

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. 

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism

January 23, 2021

Trump is gone. We survived the inauguration, not only unbloodied, but closer to united, which I am crediting to J. Lo. She sang a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” written by the OG Antifa Woody Guthrie. Besides Bernie’s mittens, the grand ritual was notable for one key sentence from the newly sworn in president. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It was a first for an inaugural address and a focus that is desperately needed.

I’ve written much in this blog about the threat of right-wing extremism and the through-line that connects the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The 25,000 National Guardsmen and the collapse of the ludicrous QAnon prophecy helped us to deflate the threat this past week but that doesn’t mean the barbarians are not still at the gate, hoping to cripple our democracy. The election of Barack Obama (and a Democratic congress) in 2008 gave raise to the Tea Party movement. 2021 will see a post-Q antigovernment movement that, with the help of social media, will fuse all the bad actors of the past. It’s already a broad counterculture the ranges from Trump’s “suburban housewife” that still thinks Joe Biden is fronting an underground pedophile ring to the self-styled Timothy McVeigh-wannabe who plots to bring down federal office buildings to strike a blow against the “Zionist Occupation Government.”

So what do we do now?

If President Biden is sincere about confronting political extremism and white supremacy and defeating domestic terrorism, now is the time to create an organized, cohesive interagency plan to get in front of this issue, or we’re going to need a lot more than 25,000 National Guard to protect our institutions of government. As a researcher and organizer working in this field for 30 years, I’ve started sketching out what a countering violent extremism strategy might look like. Similar to the institutional shifts that occurred after 9/11, it recognizes the capacities of existing agencies, including the Department of Education, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. This initial approach contains four organizing principles; suppression, education, extraction, and vision.

Suppression: Addressing active threats

After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Clinton Administration immediately pivoted to confront the threat of violence from the patriot militia movement. The reality is that, on October 25, 1994, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Attorney General Janet Reno to alert “all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by unauthorized militias that have recently sprung up in at least eighteen states.” While that warning may not have been heeded, after the terrorist attack the following April, Reno made the suppression of domestic terror groups a priority. The FBI broke up several plots, including those leading up to the “doomsday” prophecies connected to Y2K on January 1, 2000.

The events of 9/11 propelled President Bush to move many of those law enforcement resources to the investigation of international terrorist plots, particularly after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “patriot movement” didn’t go away after 9/11. It retreated to the corners of the internet. In the Obama years it scooped up many Tea Party activists and by the Trump years it was in the streets, heavily armed and promising a revolution, rebranded as the “Boogaloo.” In 1997, I interviewed several militia members in western Montana and one told me, “We’re patient men but this war will happen in our lifetimes.”

The suppression plan of the Biden Administration must include 5 important areas. 1) The interruption of ongoing plots. While we still don’t have a federal definition of “domestic terrorism,” criminal conspiracy statues have been used and must be utilized with increased use of intelligence services and investigative resources. 2) The monitoring of e-chatter of threats, including open source social media posts, the dark web, and encrypted communications. Research from the Rand Corporation has found that this chatter increases before acts of hate-motivated violence occur. 3) Turning extremists into assets. Life After Hate is a group of former extremists who now work in the field of countering violent extremism. The Prevent Program in the UK has utilized former jihadists in the working of interrupting jihadist plots. “Formers” are a vital resource available but under used. 4) Disrupting extremist prison gangs. There is a pipeline  that runs from white gangs inside prison to hate groups outside prison. A national strategy on these security threat groups would cut off a channel of extremist recruitment. 5) Monitoring foreign involvement in in-person and on-line extremism. Foreign actors, particularly from Russia, have been active in both bolstering the American white supremacist movement and spreading disinformation that increases hostility towards the American government.

Education: Confronting the issues that divide us

In this age of disinformation, we must honestly address the sins of the past while reaching out to those who are drawn into the conspiracy theories of radical right because of their lack of understanding of social and demographic changes (and how government itself works). The summer 2020 protests following the George Floyd killing highlighted the work that remains to be done to address institutional, cultural, and personal racism.

If we are going to have a national conversation about race, it needs two very important audiences. The first audience is people of color who need an honest acknowledgment of the generations of trauma that racism has cause. We’ve never really dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary psyche. It’s not like anti-black racism magically disappeared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Similarly, we also haven’t confronted the trauma caused by Japanese internment, the Bracero Program, or separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The second audience must be white people, especially white people who have been economically dislocated by globalization and economic shifts. Lecturing about white privilege is a hard sell to a coal minor who has lost his job in the push for “renewable energy.” We don’t reduce the normalization of white supremacist thinking that pushes white people into thinking “their” country is disappearing if we don’t help white people see the value of inclusion and the futility of extremism.

Education must revolve around four key agendas. 1) Racial reconciliation. As Germany did after WW II and South Africa did after apartheid, we need a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation that links the dark past to the problems of the present. This work is hard but must be done. 2) Diversity, equity, and inclusion training and celebration. The Biden team doesn’t have to give America a long HR diversity training, but there are some valuable skills that can be taught widely, including the understanding of implicit bias. This work can also be a lot of fun as we come together, not to melt into a national pot, but celebrate the diverse ingredients of our national gumbo. 3) Community healing and dialogue. Much of this work must be done locally, recognizing the intersectionality of different communities. “Asian-Americans” are not one monolithic group. 4) Outreach to dislocated populations. Equity requires actively bringing people to the table. We must recognize that many of those marginalized communities are white. They are better served at a table with their non-white neighbors than in a basement plotting attacks on their own government.

Extraction: Dealing with the internal threat

Nearly one in five of the participants in the Capitol attack were members of the U.S. military. There is a long list of police officers who have had ties to white supremacist groups. There is an alleged group of prison guards who work to support racist gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood. The infiltration of groups sworn to protect us by extremists is the worst kept secret in America. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet who handed out copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist revolution handbook, to the white members of his platoon.

Addressing this problem is vital to this strategy for two reasons. The first is the utilization of the military for training by right wing extremists. Additionally, having people on the inside (cops, prison guards, National Guard, Air Force officers with access to nuclear weapons, etc.) makes waging a civil war at lot easier. While I was undercover with a group of racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989, four Stinger missiles disappeared from the armory of a nearby Army base and were recovered from the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho. And if you’ve got a Josh Hawley who can open the doors for you, all the easier.

The second is all about perception. The belief that police and the military reinforce white supremacy didn’t die with Bull Conner and is central to the protests for racial justice. We can’t move forward until we’ve proven this important work is incompatible with organized racism.

So this plank of the strategy must both respect government workers’ first amendment rights while managing extremist infiltrations in three areas; 1) the United States military, 2) municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and 3) correctional officers in local jails, and state and federal prisons.

Vision: Who are we as a nation?

If the “America Century” began at the end of World War I, the century is ending. Will there be a second American century that is different? Or will it just be a high tech version of Jim Crow and people begging for black lives to matter. For the last four years there has been a massive vacuum of leadership. All we heard was a call to make America 1950 again, a time when millions of Americans were institutionally disenfranchised. We need a clear message about what America is going to look like. The hard fact is that demographic trends don’t lie. The country is becoming less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and less Protestant. Will we sink into an endless battle between WASPs and everyone else? A clear articulation of what the other path looks like is desperately needed. It seems like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are willing to formulate that vision.

We need our national leaders to think about four central agendas in this “re-visioning.” 1) A clear articulation of our values. What does mean to be an American? We are a nation of people of deep empathy, willing to confront our demons and work together on meaningful solutions. If the military reminds us “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” we can do the work to lift all those in our country to “be best” (Sorry, Melania.) 2) Addressing intersections. These issues are complex and overlap with other important issues. For example, global warming is pushing environmental refugees into extremist groups around the globe and is having real impact on the American farming community. 3) Addressing the truth and pain of the past. Donald Trump tried to erase the past with his 1776 Project. We must confront it head on and that will include some sincere acknowledge of harm done. President Reagan’s 1988 apology to Japanese-Americans for the mass internment in the 1940s went a long way to heal the wounding that was done to so many families who had their lives ripped away because of racist war hysteria.  4) Envisioning the path forward. What will a “less white” America look like? Our president can guide to a stable, diverse, beautiful pluralist view of the future that won’t doom us to endless division and extremist violence.

We have the ability to achieve this. We can both prevent domestic terrorism and bring disaffected Americans back into our wonderful, diverse family. The second American century can be spectacular, not just for few, but for all. There is a heavy load to be lifted by the Biden Administration, but it will be made lighter if we all help carry it.